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
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? alt.country?) 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.
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.
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.
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 2005
| Jan. 23, 2005