I suppose one has to be respectful of an artist's line of reasoning,
however mysterious their motivations might seem to be, I have to admit
that I was more than a bit perplexed - and disappointed - when I read
that Ani DiFranco's new CD would signify the final chapter of her long
and fruitful relationship with her band. And now that the CD is out
and I've had the time to digest it I have to say that I'm really sorry
about that. Titled Evolve, the album represents the end of a journey
- and the beginning of another.
had appreciated Ani DiFranco's CDs starting from Out Of Range (1994).
But I was really excited by her new phase which I would loosely define
as starting with the very good Up Up Up Up Up Up and To The Teeth albums
(both from 1999), arriving at the crowning achievements of the double
Revelling/Reckoning (2001), and getting its official live documentation
with last year's So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter double CD and its
companion live DVD, Render - very good artifacts which can somehow work
as consolation prizes for those who have never caught this line-up in
those years the process paid very high dividends: the songs became more
stylistically varied, her guitar work grew more agile and versatile,
her vocal delivery acquired more nuances, the songs' narratives became
richer. Evolve is in a way the culmination of a process, while hinting
at her new solo direction. The album will be greeted with joy by the
faithful, but - clocking at under one hour - will not fail to convince
those who regarded Revelling/Reckoning as being too much of a good thing.
Newcomers will be captivated - and then they'll ask why this album is
not front page news everywhere (but this is a different story, right?).
usual, the group plays admirably. Honourable mention will go to drummer
Daren Hahn, whose versatile work throughout the album is the agile foundation
on which the arrangements are built - listen to his precise, but never
stiff, approach on the funky In The Way and to the Cuban/mariachi vibe
of Here for Now, where the instruments wisely frame - but never crowd
- the vocals. The horn arrangements are something else, the most sophisticated
this side of Steely Dan - just listen to the clarinets on Icarus and
to the subliminal work (clarinet, trumpet, flute - and when was the
last time you heard a bass clarinet on a record?) on Phase; not to mention
the light textures which provide shadings (but no excessive weight)
to Second Intermission, a song whose mixture of accessibility and sophistication
is not too far from mid-70s Joni Mitchell.
listen to Slide, the album's catchiest track, which makes good use of
its tension and release, the horns, fresh-sounding ("aaah...")
background vocals, plus a very expressive DiFranco vocal delivery (listen
to the punch she uses when pronouncing the words "tractor pull")
- and be sure not to miss those maracas at the end.
O My My was for me the biggest surprise: just listen to the angular
quality - straight off the Monk songbook - of the initial piano riff
(DiFranco herself on piano!); and dig the way the alto saxophone doubles
those repeated piano high notes, a Monk signature if there ever was
one. While at the end the song goes all the way back to New Orleans,
clarinet and muted trumpet and all.
songs that had already been featured on the live double So Much Shouting,
So Much Laughter appear here again: Shrug and Welcome To; and while
the latter provides the record with a sense of closure, it's the former's
arrangement that I liked the most, with a beautiful alto saxophone intro
(Hans Teuber, who's a fantastic clarinet player), where you can really
hear the blow in the reed and the keys clicking in your living room.
I mention that Ani DiFranco herself did the mixing? I don't want to
start a religious war here, but it's pretty refreshing to listen to
such a natural-sounding record - and drums! Mostly live in the studio
with some overdubs, it's the players' dynamics that count, and they
come out clearly, not squashed by the engineering.)
herself is at her usual good on acoustic and electric guitars, which
are not a background strumming but an integral part to the whole (notice
how some horn parts are strictly derived from guitar parts); and dig
her acoustic slide work on Icarus or her funky strokes on In The Way
(okay, so she is not Steve Cropper - but who is?).
this instrumental ability wouldn't amount to much without the songs,
which are very good (but beware: the record is a grower). And if songs
like Evolve, Phase, Second Intermission and Serpentine are any indication
of where she's headed, we can say we're in for a nice surprise.
last thing: hers are still the best-smelling booklets in the business.
Beppe Colli 2003
| March 23, 2003