“No hit singles. No platinum albums. No compromises.” It’s an appropriate tagline that accompanies the latest release from the self-described “little folksinger” who has taken some giant steps for independent music in her career. A number of other descriptives could have easily been included in that tagline for this chronological look back at DiFranco’s work: words like ground-breaking, courageous and exciting all come to mind.
In the past 17 years that DiFranco has been recording and self-releasing music, there have been countless articles written about her staggering artistic integrity, the true grit with which she seems to approach everything from her live shows to her record label, and the way that her commitment to music and community has permeated throughout all areas of her career. Yes, there is a strong and large group of Righteous Babe fans that have been following this folksinger from dive bars and buying cassette tapes out of the trunk of her car, tirelessly touring college campuses and now securing headlining spots at folk festivals and selling out prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall on a regular basis. Rarely has an artist’s evolution been so captivating, unexpected and significant. Naturally, the proper cataloguing of the key posts along the way that appears here on Canon is not your average greatest hits collection.
There have been many twists and turns on DiFranco’s path over the years, and they’re all represented here in 36 tracks over two CDs. Without the no-brainer options that hit singles typically provide for other artists putting together a career-spanning compilation, the song choices that appear on Canon are more interesting because they each represent significant points in a less conventional way and, especially, something relevant to the artist herself: DiFranco handpicked each song included on the discs. The personal touch creates a far more meaningful and appropriate collection that feels like sifting through old high school yearbooks and the stories that go along with all those pictures. There are nods in all the right places: live tracks, spoken word, performance interludes and five re-recordings of old tracks make up the collection. Very different interpretations of “Napoleon”, “Shameless”, “Your Next Bold Move”, “Both Hands” and “Overlap” were recorded with bassist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Allison Miller. Of those new recordings, DiFranco told Susan Visakowitz of Billboard, “These five were songs I knew I wanted to include, but couldn’t find a single good recording of. In all honesty, if I could have, I probably would have done 36 new tracks, because I second-guess everything I’ve done in the studio given enough time. But these five I handpicked to represent in a more fortified way.”
It’s not unexpected that DiFranco would have such a heavy hand in putting together this scrapbook, and in fact, her decisions about this album ultimately provide a further look at the artist who’s early lyric “I build each one of my songs out of glass so you can see me inside them, I suppose” has always been an appropriate description of her artistic personality. DiFranco has made many moves since she started playing shows at 18, seamlessly shapeshifting from activist to indie music mogul, touring machine to her latest role as proud mother to a newborn daughter. Naturally, it’s a more domestic point of view that DiFranco is coming from these days: the touring has slowed down and roots have been laid down with homes in New Orleans and her native Buffalo, NY.
And perhaps that’s the latest curveball that DiFranco is throwing audiences on this album that clearly has a tendency towards DiFranco’s later, and more sentimental work, though so much of her early albums had such a political bent and a pared-down simplicity that made those fighting words even more powerful. That move away from the highly political topics towards more emotional and personal songwriting was a much talked about mindshift, and one that DiFranco even addresses with the inclusion here of “Distracted”, an onstage interlude from one of her past performances. Still, it was that practically bare, percussive guitar picking and wailing voice that wooed many of her first fans, and snapshots from that period should have been better represented in this yearbook.
DiFranco fans and newbies alike will appreciate the collection of music put together on Canon. It’s an impressive look at a ground-breaking career and, like everything that she’s done, Ani DiFranco doesn’t take the easy way here and it pays back in spades.