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Ani DiFranco – [Album]

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Thursday, 19 January 2012

While some listeners may be surprised at the changes Ani DiFranco has made to her style and forms for her new album, ¿Which Side Are You On? (her seventeenth album in twenty-two years), it's easy to forget some of the events which have affected the singer over the last few years may have rendered those changes necessary – and they aren't the ones you'd immediately think of. Yes, DiFranco became a mother in 2007 and, true, many aspects of her sound changed after Hurricane Katrina forced her to abandon both the initial sessions for Reprieve as well as the New Orleans studio where she had been working on it – but the most significant reason why something had to change for Ani DiFranco was because of the “severe tendonitis” diagnosis she received in 2005. For a guitarist who made her name as a finger-picking player, such a diagnosis qualified as career threatening and, conspicuously, it has been the thing which has kept her trying to adapt ever since. All of the aural alterations which Ani has made in the last five years are attributable to it.

Not all of the concessions to fate and adaptations DiFranco has made to it have been the easiest things to hear but, on ¿Which Side Are You On?, the singer has arrived at her best, most solid and sustainable solution to date. This time – rather than simply trying to substitute similar sounds in for the busy and bracing acoustic guitar figures she's no longer able to produce as she had on Reprieve, or simply trying to bury her old muses in new ones as she had on Red Letter Year – DiFranco has chosen to start layering some new and vibrant sounds alongside the conventions longtime fans know and let them feed, brace, bolster and inform each other. The results are a fantastic new creature that is all fans who found the last couple of albums lacking could have asked for and brings the possibility of exciting new forms into focus as well; it is truly remarkable.

Even with such a glowing advance warning, fans will still be couple perfect unaware as “Life Boat” warms the circuits for the album. With warm and fade-y electric guitars, a bowed bass and a Wurlitzer piano Ani begins to recount candidly the ways and means by which she grew up as well as how she's related her stories before from the standpoint of a dry-eyed survivor (check out lines like, “I remember that old hotel had quite a smell/ Where I would go to use the phone/ between the doughnut shop and the pizza parlor/ where I learned to live alone” and “every time I open my mouth/ I take off my clothes” and “and I got this running monologue/ entertaining in its outrage”) hardened by the experience, unrepentant and strong. It is a beautiful act of rebellion and the perfect one for Ani DiFranco to use to re-introduce herself (again) to her fans; she appears here, galvanized, brilliant and ready to go. These proud images continue into “Unworry” and strike brightly as the song breaks during its chorus with thunderous timpanis and mellotron before the singer strives to re-write (or at least put her own stamp on) history with an updated cover of Florence Reece's “Which Side Are You On?” complete with a punkish swagger as well as a new thematic axe to grind. While both of the songs which precede it are strong, somehow that cover is the point at which things seem to look suddenly very different around the ¿Which Side Are You On? landscape. Right there, the growth that the album expresses is made explicit; there are nods to the past and sounds which echo different periods of DiFranco's musical history (in some cases reaching as far back as her 1990 debut – but with specific compositional nods to Out Of Range and Little Plastic Castle), but they're combined with some very new and wildly compelling ideas. Among the departures from Ani's own brand of orthodoxy are the fantastic military drums which drive and add drama to the title track and offer the perfectly infectious foil to the song's soulful and pleading vocal, the watery/dreamy, upbeat and ethereal guitar figure and massive, panoramic atmospherics of “Splinter” and the 'straight-outta-NOLA' stomp of “If Yr Not” which each take as hard a left turn as the words themselves imply but never actually see DiFranco losing an ounce of her own inimitable voice or sensibility along the way; here, DiFranco manages to bend each of these sounds to her will and illustrate what she can do with them – not what they can do with her if she gives herself to them.

Needless to say, ¿Which Side Are You On? is a startlingly powerful statement for Ani DiFranco, but it's made all the more startling when listeners realize that much of it was made without the benefit of the singer's own signature guitar style and tone. While guitars still factor heavily into the album, they are not the driving force behind it; in fact they are one of the smallest imaginable presences. Therein is the breakthrough that ¿Which Side Are You On? represents: here, Ani DiFranco illustrates that the source of the power behind her music is her and her sensibility, not her instrument.

Artist:

www.righteousbabe.com/ani/
www.myspace.com/anidifranco
www.facebook.com/anidifranco
www.twitter.com/anidifranco

Further Reading:

Ground Control – Ani DiFranco – [Discography Review] (Part One)  
Ground Control – Ani DiFranco – [Discography Review] (Part Two)

Album:

¿Which Side Are You On?
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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Ani DiFranco – [Album]

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Wednesday, 01 October 2008

Even in the interrupted and rough-hewn, needs-first exposition that was Reprieve (the sessions for the album were put on hold as Hurricane Katrina forced the singer to evacuate New Orleans for the comparatively stable climes of upstate New York) it was clear that Ani DiFranco was reaching out to find the elements that would help her re-envision the parameters of her sound. Beneath the chaotic clamor of that collection of songs were the seeds of new ideas forced into stasis by events beyond anyone’s control but, rather than let the notions of what the singer was striving for die on the vine, she elected instead to cobble together the rest of the album with the tools that she had at hand and ended up renovating her fans’ image of her as well as setting up whatever followed to command attention in the process.

Because of the departures in sound and songwriting style that Reprieve represented, all bets were off on what listeners could expect from Ani DiFranco—would she tuck tail and return to familiar sonic ground? Press forward and follow through on Reprieve’s promise? The verdict was out. One thing is for certain though: in the number of things the singer could have done, no one could have expected the sounds on Red Letter Year.

From the very beginning of the uncharacteristically tentative-sounding title track, Ani has augmented her established sound from the very foundations up. Historically with a full band, the music has never been so densely layered (even when there was a horn section involved) or so slick in composition or production. Here, in songs like “Alla This,” “Smiling Underneath,” “Emancipated Minor” (which actually treads terrifyingly close to Dave Matthews in its’ R&B/folkie rock execution) and “Good Luck”, the rhythms are the central drive behind the proceedings rather than DiFranco’s percussive acoustic guitar arpeggios; they’ve been replaced with electric guitars and heavily produced keyboard textures. Likewise, the beats are unusually straightforward. Oddly, the focus here is on the actual time signatures and the rhythm adheres more closely over the more expressive and parenthetical, percussive punctuations that have been the norm on records past. For long-time fans, such alterations to the norm (particularly “Emancipated Minor”) may be difficult to take with even the most open of minds and the production values may take some getting used to however, happily, songs including the title track (as well as the closing reprise of it), “Way Tight,” “Present/Infant” and “The Atom” rank among some of the singer’s best.

There’s no doubt about this album’s innate accessibility—as was the case with the changes that the singer made in Educated Guess and Knuckledown, the changes that DiFranco has made here will draw fans in; it just won’t necessarily be all the same ones. While long-time fans may initially be put off by this new, less ornate and intrinsically rockist effort, the truth is that what it lacks in delicacy, it makes up for with increased hooks and conventional (not to be confused with the norm for Ani) songwriting. As was the case with Educated Guess but in a totally different approach, this is the kind of record that the uninitiated will have a very easy time falling into as well as in love with.

Artist:

www.righteousbabe.com/ani
myspace.com/anidifranco

Download:
“Emancipated Minor” from Red Letter Year – [mp3]

Album:
Red Letter Year is out now. Buy it on Amazon.

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