Ani DiFranco

(Righteous Babe)

Though 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.

I 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 concert.

During 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?).

As 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.

Or 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.

Two 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.

(Did 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.)

DiFranco 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?).

All 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.

One last thing: hers are still the best-smelling booklets in the business.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2003 | March 23, 2003