¿Which Side Are You On?
"In 2012 we'll have to choose The President
of The United States, and our daughter is five years old now, so it's time
for me to release a new album, and do another tour."
Well, things didn't really happen this way, of course (at least, not that I
know of); it goes without saying that preparing the new album, composing
and recording stages included, must have taken her a long time (to anticipate
my conclusion: it was definitely worth it); and I've read that quite a
few songs that appear on the album were previewed live on stage in 2011.
Coming about three and a half years after Red Letter Year, Ani DiFranco's new
CD defiantly shows a "political" face, getting its title, and
manifesto, from a very old folk tune that was made popular a long time
ago by Pete Seeger, who - 90-something and all - starts the track on banjo.
As it's to be expected, the song lyrics were updated by DiFranco, who -
as per her usual - carefully balances the "political"
and the "personal" sides of social life.
I have to admit that it was with a certain degree of ambivalence that I waited
for this album to be released, since all those changes that had occurred
in DiFranco's "personal" life (which, for her, have also a "political" side)
(I'm talking about her having a baby, and marrying again, but this time
he really was "Mr. Right") appear to have produced deep changes
in a life that had been spent living
"outside borders". To be perfectly frank, I also suspected she
was about to experience a "religious conversion" of some sort -
not quite à la late-70s Patti Smith, perhaps, but at least in the general
direction of a pantheistical religiosity as could be conceived under a feminist
light, which would be anyway quite a coherent outcome for a cultural travelogue
as experienced by DiFranco (and had not been The Atom, on Red Letter Year,
already a possible window on a way of conceiving life that up to that point
had been hidden from view?).
While making it impossible for me to get - and listen to - this CD on the expected
date, the "wild cat strike" that during the latter part of January
all but froze all movement in the part of Italy where I live made it possible
for me to read a few US reviews I found online while completely ignoring
the music featured on the album (just a few reviews, by the way, even fewer
than in the past; here I have to say that, with the partial exception of
the brief period when she was also a "in" character - I'm thinking
about that cover story in Spin magazine where, come to think of it, she
appeared dressed as a kind of before-the-fact Noomi Rapace seen as the
character she impersonates in the Millennium trilogy - it remains a mystery
to me why Ani DiFranco's work is seldom mentioned in the press); funny
thing, I noticed that while some colleagues of mine thought the "political
songs" featured on the album sounded almost as they had been written
"automatic pilot", while finding the "love songs" so
fresh and new, others thought the opposite to be true, the "love songs" to
them sounding quite naïve, the more political ones sounding deep.
But let's talk about music now, shall we?
Red Letter Year had (also) been a picture of one of the possible roles played
by "Ani DiFranco, not a guitarist anymore". Alas!, a quite serious
condition of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome had appeared to break the vital link
between DiFranco's vocals and her guitar playing, which can be listened
to for the last time in its original guise on Knuckle Down (2005 - the
first thing that comes to my mind is the agile groove that moves through
the track titled Lag Time). Reprieve (2006) successfully traveled a more
"minimal" route, while retaining (double) bass player and multi-instrumentalist
Todd Sickafoose, the biggest surprise on Reprieve. Red Letter Year had sounded
like a good album where the whole was definitely smaller than the sum of
The reason for this being not the fact that it featured "too many styles",
but due to a problem that appeared for the very first time: Where do her
vocals sit in a track, and how do we make those "irregular" vocal
lines which used to come off the guitar/vocal interchange, sounding about
halfway between Robert Johnson's blues and African music, come off sounding "right"?
Quite weird, this, listening to that album, at times one got the impression
that there was "too much"
going on - a string quartet, then an electric bass, then compressed drums,
and so on and so forth - all trying to hide the absence of the guitar as
"foundation" of the song - and failing big time.
¿Which Side Are You On? appears to offer a different solution to (almost, but
not quite) the same problem.
think that DiFranco and Mike Napolitano, acting as producers, (almost)
hit the bull's eye. One can clearly feel a "grounding" role for
the guitar, with Ani DiFranco back to performing her parts. Her old busy,
hard, strumming is a thing of the past, of course, but this is not necessarily
a bad thing: an intelligent orchestration work makes use of many timbres
in order to produce a lively, pleasant-sounding, whole. These are modern
times, of course, and seen under this light, the sound of the music here
is almost miraculous: not at all fatiguing, if not really "natural",
it's obviously the product of Pro Tools' infinite tracks, not the fruit
of a room where musicians look at each other; DiFranco's vocals are more
natural- and pleasant-sounding than on Red Letter Year, with the partial
exception of the lines in the first verse of opening track, where the attack
of the notes have been cut off a bit more than the optimum, the final result
sounding a bit on the mechanical side (which is definitely a no-no in my
have a quick look at those tracks.
The beautiful opening track, Life Boat, is a "bluesy" ballad with
many guitars - DiFranco herself on baritone - featuring relaxed vocals,
which make for a surprising effect, given the song's topic (homeless people),
sung "in character"; two basses, Todd Sickafoose's chords on
Wurlitzer electric piano, and a fine performance on distorted electric
guitar by Adam Levy.
is a good, not great, track, sporting an excellent vocal performance and
a nervous groove - Andy Borger's drums, hi-hat and snare coming to the
fore - a very good double bass, tympanis, electric guitar, and Mellotron,
piano, and harpsichord filling the area that was once covered by an acoustic
guitar played arpeggio.
Side Are You On? - Pete Seeger's solo banjo starting the track - is a multi-themed
political hymn, a call to arms in an electoral year, with a tense vocal
performance by DiFranco, her guitar hitting as hard as nails; then drums,
snares, voices, and Todd Sickafoose's Mellotron; at about 4' we hear winds
- like a street parade in New Orleans, to underline the collective atmosphere
of the track; in closing, there's an excellent double bass.
has an intro by acoustic guitar, a nice groove for electric bass, electric
guitar, and a pedal steel to communicate a relaxed, "stoned" mood
- almost a calypso, with a relaxed vocal performance, though the topic
at hand is quite serious; fine use of vibes and tubular bells (by Mike
Dillon, whose performances on the album are definitely subtle and well-thought);
there's a weird "filmic" interlude, twice, Theremin and all,
(as solemn as something off the soundtrack to The Ten Commandments!).
has a fantastic groove - a double bass, and Allison Miller's drums, playing
a groove that to me sounds clearer than those played by the new drummer
- that reminded me, in spirit, at least, of the more joyful, communicative
moments on Joni Mitchell's classic album, Court And Spark - just listen
to the sound of the word "wide" at 58"; fine vibes, an electric
guitar playing vibrato (via plug-in?) in section B; excellent vocal performance
is a "romantic"-sounding song, to me sounding almost like a popular
melody in ¾ for mandolins from the South of Italy; here DiFranco
herself is on guitar and synth, Sickafoose on double bass, piano and sk1
(and what was that, a mono synth from Casio?), there are also drums and
electric guitar; very appropriately, the whole sounds quite "understated".
J has an upbeat groove sounding very different from what's on the rest of
the album: here, Cyril Neville is on drums, and Ivan Neville is on keyboard
bass and on a lively synth, with a harpsichord played by DiFranco that
adds timbral variety; it's a Caribbean groove, with the song's B section
sounding very much like a
If Yr Not sports a fine bluesy groove, it features electric bass, drums, harsh-sounding
electric guitar by DiFranco opening the song, and then all over the track,
an excellent wind section - tenor sax, trombone, and tuba - playing a melody
very "dirge"-sounding, DiFranco's filtered vocals reminding me
of a funeral chant.
Hearse is a subtle ballad, not too far from Neil Young, circa After The Gold Rush;
Sickafoose is on bells, DiFranco on acoustic guitar, the double bass played
arco producing harmonics, with organ and piano making for a richer whole.
Mariachi sports an agile groove that has "DiFranco" written all over it,
excellent double bass, fine snare drums played brushes by Allison Miller,
Mike Dillon's vibes, Sickafoose's piano, a little melodic part for solo
bass; it's a light, totally appropriate moment.
For this writer, Amendment is the album's only faux pas: a mood that's quite
reminiscent of the soundtrack to a horror movie, echoes, multiple vocals,
guitars galore, effects, a strident tenor sax solo, a "Paradise"-sounding
B section, an ending where vibes give the song almost an air of caricature.
Zoo has an intro by DiFranco on acoustic guitar; clean, melancholic-sounding
vocals; fine passages from electric bass and acoustic guitar playing unison;
nice effects; the Wurlitzer.
© Beppe Colli 2012
CloudsandClocks.net | Feb. 2, 2012