Ani DiFranco learned early to live by her wits. As a teenager she worked her way around Buffalo, NY folk clubs, and relocated to NYC before she turned 20. Two things made her a folk singer: it was cheap (all the overhead she needed was an acoustic guitar), and it didn't get in the way of her saying her piece. And she had a lot to say -- when she cut her first homemade tape, something to sell at the clubs she played, her guitar wasn't much more than a prop that she assaulted between breaths, but her words were fully formed, deeply personal and rigorously political, and there were a lot of them. But she wasn't a folkie, and despite her looks she wasn't a punk either -- she was a complete, irreducible original.
Her first two albums were just girl with guitar, and possibly the most arresting piece on them was "Not So Soft," where she laid the guitar down and just spoke her poem. But she already had all the mouth she'd ever need, and she exuded enough presence to make you hang on her every word. A few years later, on Like I Said, she returned to those early songs, fleshing them out with newfound musical skills, but the improvement is minor. However, on Imperfectly she starts working with other musicians, most notably drummer Andy Stochansky. This adds powder to the explosive "What If No One's Watching." But DiFranco's own musicianship has also made a great leap forward, as on "If It Isn't Her," with just Ani playing quirky guitar, and singing, "I have been playing/too many of them boy-girl games/she says honey you are safe here/this is a girl-girl thing."
The following albums -- Puddle Dive, Out of Range, Not a Pretty Girl, Dilate -- are full of sharply observed lyrics and increasingly innovative music, a remarkable series of albums. Meanwhile, DiFranco's intense fan base grew large enough to put her self-released albums on the charts, leading to the inevitable 2-CD Living in Clip, an extraordinary career summation selected from various concerts with her trio (Stochansky on drums, Sara Lee on bass). The set works both as greatest hits and as a performance showcase -- DiFranco's guitar, especially on "Out of Range," has the same urgency and definition as she's long had with her voice.
The next series of albums might be considered her progressive period: while the lyrics continue to reflect her political concerns, they are less clearly anchored in her personal life (or perhaps her personal life as a record company exec just isn't interesting enough), but her expanding musical skills often make for interesting listening. Little Plastic Castle starts out with horns and a latin beat, and winds up with the meditative "Pulse," with Jon Hassell on trumpet. Up Up Up Up Up Up is looser and jazzier, while To the Teeth meanders into rap ("Swing") and ska/punk ("Freakshow") and hard to say what else. The sprawling 2-CD Revelling/Reckoning is less successful, its lyrics hiding behind the music instead of jumping out. The second live double, So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter, is a lot more fun, partly because it recycles familiar songbook under the guise of documenting her new band with all the snazzy horns, but also because this restores some bite to her political songs -- especially "Self-Evident," but even there she seems to have outgrown her early, intense fusion of the personal and the political, relegating her political impulses to the more conventional realm of protest songs. Another long protest song/poem, "Serpentine," adds topical relevancy to Evolve, but for once the fancy music gets the best of the muted messages. On the other hand, her all-solo move, Educated Guess, contorts her elegant wordplay over sharply stung acoustic guitar, then tortures both with birdlike vocal overdubs -- the only pleasure is when she just recites, or just plays.
The two Utah Phillips albums comprise a fascinating side project. The Past Didn't Go Anywhere starts with Phillips saying, "what I do is I collect stories," but then you notice that he's been sampled and looped -- folk music as mix tape. The music is decidedly unfolkie -- synth drums and new agey guitar, which Phillips talks and lectures and hectors over. Fascinating stories, too, especially the ones about deserting from the Korean War and finding pacifism as a 12-step program. And he's observant enough to quote an old geezer on his wife's "new age" bookstore: "no matter how new age you get, old age's gonna kick your ass." Fellow Workers dispenses with the trip hop for tales of Mother Jones and Joe Hill and some old-fashioned labor struggle singalongs. Which just serves to remind us that one of DiFranco's most important innovations has been to build her own record label -- a rare case of a worker who owns the means of production.
My review from Static:
Ani DiFranco: So Much Shouting / So Much Laughter (Righteous Babe) First thing I heard by Ani DiFranco was a bootleg tape of her first album. Even then she wasn't really a folksinger, just a poet who assaulted her acoustic guitar when she needed to catch a breath. But the best thing on that album was a spoken poem, which revealed her two real talents: a knack for assembling pointed words, and a fearless will to perform them. One thing you can count on in pop music is that people who can write can learn to play, while people who only play will never learn to write. So it's not surprising that DiFranco went on to put the whole package together; nor even, given that her attraction to folk music was low cost and the chance to spout off politically, that she did it on her own terms, owning her own label. But like any business she now finds herself in the awkward position of having to keep new product flowing, which is what a second live double in five years smells like. But it doesn't sound that way -- it sounds like live performance is her natural metier, that her crowd is indeed the point of her sharp political poesy (most notably on her post-9/11 "Self Evident"). And yes, she's turned into as fierce and distinctive a guitarist as she is a writer.
Parke Puterbaugh on Revelling / Reckoning: ***(*)
Like Prince, another highly motivated renegade, Ani DiFranco demands much of herself and her fans. Uncompromising and emotionally charged, Revelling/Reckoning is a dizzying double-disc, twenty-nine-track ziggurat. The first disc, Revelling, is more outward-focused and band-oriented, judiciously incorporating funk and jazz elements. Reckoning is more introspective and spare, featuring DiFranco's prickly finger-picking. Cool, lilting horns decorate "What How When Where (Why Who)," an audacious collage of urban R&B vocals, abstract guitar licks, cool-jazz horns and New Orleans parade rhythms. DiFranco's rapier-sharp lyrics cut to the bone in "Your Next Bold Move," a thoughtful diatribe about capitalism run amok, in which she muses, "What a waste of thumbs that are opposable/To make machines that are disposable." Elsewhere, she tackles the widening rich-poor schism, the economic chokehold exerted by multinational corporations, dirty air, HIV, environmental cancers and, of course, her own personal revelings and reckonings. Check out this nugget from "Garden of Simple": "Science chases money, and money chases its tail/The best minds of my generation can't make bail." Revelling/Reckoning is powerful listening for anyone struggling to make sense of a seemingly capsizing world. (RS 869 - May 24, 2001)