Ani DiFranco
Knuckle Down

(Righteous Babe)

A lot of curiosity, plus more than a pinch of trepidation (of which I was perfectly conscious): these were my feelings when I heard that a new Ani DiFranco CD was about to be released. The new work by the musician who's still (affectionately) called "the little folksinger" but who for a long time now has been one of the most solid realities in modern songwriting had a difficult task: to demonstrate that her new itinerary - the one coming after her separation from the group of musicians who had been at her side for a long time (a story of which Evolve, the album released two years ago, had been the fine final chapter) and after the release of the album she made all by herself (also technically), Educated Guess - was indeed the right one. A few months before Knuckle Down, the DVD-V titled Trust had been released. It showed the new edition of Ani DiFranco in concert, with double bass player Todd Sickafoose as her main partner on stage. (Those familiar with that DVD will find on Knuckle Down the three unreleased tracks that had appeared on the DVD.)

Listening to the album - twelve songs, just a bit under one hour - left me quite a bit puzzled. The opening track, Knuckle Down - just voice, guitar, and double bass - sounded almost like a P.S. to Educated Guess, and as a reflection of the line-up featured on the Trust DVD. But most of the other tracks - and what about this new instrumental line-up? - reminded me of some (cowpunk? atmospheres that for me are not so convincing. It was at this moment that I remembered that I had not found any of the previous Ani DiFranco albums to be that convincing on first listening - a fact that always reminds me of my reaction to all those Rolling Stones classic singles from the 60s, so dissonant yet so strangely appealing at the same time. So I decided to give the new album quite a bit of my undivided attention.

Fact: for the first time, the new album sees another person - a musician, Joe Henry - listed as co-producer. Knuckle Down was recorded and mixed by Husky Hoskolds at The Sound Factory studios in Los Angeles. This is a very "live" sounding album that's very communicative and whose sound is a fine match for the styles of the tracks. Nice fidelity, with a particular attention to the room sound, where the drums are often a "presence" and the double bass is often "felt" more than clearly heard: hearing all the pitches is not always easy (nor really indispensable). Musicians appear as on a soundstage, with the rhythm guitar played by Ani DiFranco as the main motor to the tracks. I don't want the reader to get the impression (from my quick description) that this is a rushed job! Just listen to the vocal parts.

Todd Sickafoose is a very fine musician. Jay Bellerose, on drums and percussion, is very good at playing the rhythm tracks to Studying Stones and Recoil, the grooves of Modulation and Seeing Eye Dog, in his brushes work in Callous, in the contagious upbeat of Lag Time, maybe the rhythm that sounds as the more similar to what the old group would have played. I got a so-so impression from electric guitar player Tony Sherr, who's featured on a few tracks: maybe I'm one of those proverbial persons who's just impossible to please, but thirty-five years after Clarence White I would have liked a more personal approach. The real instrumental surprise of the record are the violin (and also the glockenspiel and the whistling!) by Andrew Bird and the keyboards by Patrick Warren. A couple of years ago I had listened to a CD by Bird, Weather Systems, and found it to be nothing to shout about; his violin (plus effects) is quite appropriate here (check Studying Stones and Recoil), while the whistling thing (Manhole, Callous) is quite personal. On piano, Patrick Warren is a distinctive player who never overplays; there's nice use of the Chamberlin (think pre-Mellotron: an ante litteram, tape-based sampler); there's also an original coda to Lag Time. On the track Minerva we hear the impossible-to-mistake melodica of Julie Wolf, here featured as a special guest.

One more time, Ani DiFranco reveals herself to be a stunning, incredibly versatile singer. (I invite listeners to check her lyrics.) The album features four tracks that will remain in one's memory after just one listening session: Studying Stones, Sunday Morning, Lag Time and Recoil. But there's a lot to be enjoyed to reward repeated listenings, in the aforementioned tracks and in songs such as the bluesy Modulation and Seeing Eye Dog, in the spoken-word Parameters and in the chilling Callous and Minerva, for this writer the peaks of the album.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2005 | Jan. 23, 2005