Ani DiFranco
¿Which Side Are You On?

(Righteous Babe)

"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 on "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 its parts.

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 the "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.

I 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 book).

Let's 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.

Unworry 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.

¿Which 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.

Splinter 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!).

Promiscuity 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 by DiFranco.

Albacore 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 "folk" ballad.

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

© Beppe Colli 2012 | Feb. 2, 2012