A Righteous Boy’s Hip-Hop Journey Through Babeland

[25 October 2007]

By Quentin B. Huff

At this point, everyone is well aware of the musical showdown that took place on September 11, 2007. Kanye West’s Graduation was set to drop the same day as 50 Cent’s Curtis, sparking a contest between two of hip-hop’s heavy hitters, with 50 staking his solo career on outselling Kanye. Not to be outdone, country singer Kenny Chesney jumped into the fray as a contender to outsell them both.

While these musical big boys were fighting it out, I wondered if either of them ever suspected that some us—even the big hip-hop and country fans—were looking forward to other releases that day. One such release was Ani Difranco’s Canon, the Buffalo, New York native’s career spanning retrospective. The set, handpicked and sequenced by the artist herself, is packed with fan favorites, five of which were re-recorded for the collection.
Usually, I’m writing about hip-hop or a specific hip-hop artist or band. I won’t pretend Ani (pronounced “Ah-nee”) Difranco’s music is classified as “hip-hop” or that I can imagine the self-described “Little Folksinger” breakdancing or beatboxing, but there are many aspects of Ms. Difranco’s career that should be of interest to music lovers, including hip-hop fans.

High on the list is her commitment to social and political issues. In addition to supporting charities and important social movements, Ms. Difranco’s music tackles everything from the “-ism"s (racism, classism, sexism) to capital punishment, sexual orientation, and reproductive rights.  There has been a bunch more love, heartbreak, and family in there than we generally acknowledge, which is important to remember because, sometimes, the fiercest political statement in Ms. Difranco’s righteous music is her ability to convey what it means to simply exist. She paints the feelings and realities of being a woman who (to borrow the words from Virginia Woolf) lives in a room of her own. Like she sang in “I’m No Heroine”, from 1992’s Imperfectly: “I hope somewhere some woman hears my music and it helps her through her day”. More than the label of “protest” singer, she’s a visionary who makes stunning and arresting observations about the world and our place in it.

Another admirable facet—and the one we usually harp on the most—is her musical independence. Supporting herself through her art since her teens, Ms. Difranco was subsequently wooed by record companies (which suggests that record label folks sometimes know a good thing when they hear it), but she never went the corporate route (which suggests that music folks sometimes know what’s best for them). She opted instead to take her fortune into her own hands and take her tunes to the public on her own terms.

The result was Righteous Babe, her record label, and through it, Ani Difranco has cranked out at least one album per year, without corporate promotional campaigns, big budget videos, or appearances on TRL.  She writes, she records, she gets the music to whoever will listen, and she tours.  In hip-hop terms, she “gets her hustle on”, and it works. Her grind has gotten so massive, she’s even “bootlegging” herself with a superb sound quality Official Bootleg series that captures the playfulness of her stage show.

Righteous Babe has grown into a hearty label, boating a roster of artists, including Hamell On Trial, Bitch & Animal, Toshi Reagon, and the late (but, at 58 years old, it feels much too early!) lyrical maestro Sekou Sundiata. Through the mail order and online Righteous Babe store, Difranco and friends keep devoted listeners updated on the happenings in Babe-land and, if you like, you can buy music, DVDs, T-shirts, hats, baby clothes, posters, fleece hoodies, guitar picks, stickers, key chains, even bottle openers.

Must be nice…to have your own label, one that’s not merely an imprint under a major label umbrella (which might not be as friendly as Rihanna’s), where you can record when you want and release what you want. You would have at least one less legalese-filled contract to worry about, and you could perhaps eliminate the haggle and runaround of chasing your royalties (are you still waiting on that accounting department?).  Problem is, you have to surround yourself with folks you trust, which, as we know from many a hip-hop record, is Mission: Difficult, if not Impossible.

I’m not saying it’s easy or that being self-employed is for everybody. But, as far as hip-hop’s underground hustle goes, Ms. Difranco has laid down quite a blueprint, proving that you can win Grammy awards and sing at Carnegie Hall even without a major record deal. The downside? Well, shouldn’t we be worried when we find ourselves surprised by musicians who want to be free to develop their talents? Seems like these artists should be the norm, rather than categorized as “fiercely independent”.

I first discovered Ani Difranco’s music through her self-titled debut, about 10 years after its release. Unfortunately for me, her discography was already 12 albums deep by the time I woke up to it—and that’s not even counting the collaborations with folk artist and storyteller Utah Phillips. At the time, there wasn’t much help around for wading through the backlog.
So, in the spirit of spreading the word, I present this guide to Ani Difranco’s albums, from a hip-hopper’s perspective, to get you started should you choose to collect her work. This is everything I own, excluding DVDs, the Swing Set EP (because I don’t own it yet), and also excluding the work with Utah Phillips and Official Bootleg releases.

Ani Difranco (1990)
Rating: 7
All right, here’s the formula: Ani + acoustic guitar = a little slice of heaven. The Little Folksinger’s debut is folksy and poetic and socially aware. Hers is a contemplative set—part yodel, part croon, and part growl—and it’s something of an acquired taste. She has a pretty voice, which is not to say it’ll knock your house slippers off, but the way she uses it is pure joy—shifting, jumping, jerking, undulating at the right times. The guitar work is prime choice as well, and she uses her strings for melody as well as rhythm.

There are many “hits” on this record: “Both Hands”, “Work Your Way Out”, a spoken word piece called “The Slant”, the political bop hop of “Dog Coffee”, “Lost Woman Song” (dedicated to Lucille Clifton), and Ms. Difranco’s gorgeous vocals over the image of societal corruption in “Pale Purple”.  Other favorites are “Rush Hour” and “Fire Door”. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t start your Difranco collection here; I’d go for a couple of later releases first.

Lyrical Gem(s): “Dog Coffee”: “Would you like some dog coffee? / It is all that we’ve got / We are taking care of business / In the meanwhile, some of the beans rot”.

Not So Soft (1991)
Rating: 7
Ani Difranco continues to be the “commander-in-chief” of her “one-woman army”, training her mighty growl and her nimble guitar on a range of topics. There’s a war (what-is-it-good-for?-absolutely-nothing) song (“Roll With It”), but from the perspective of a soldier’s significant female other. There’s also a song about sly but unwanted advances (“Gratitude”), and host of impressions about relationships (the clever “Make Me Stay”, the indelible “Itch”, and the curiosity of “The Whole Night”). 

Some of the lows here are lower than on the debut, but the highs (“Anticipate”, “Roll With It”, “Rockabye”, “Gratitude”, “The Whole Night”) are very high, so I can’t understand why—why, Ani, why!—none of these songs made the cut for Canon! Where’s the love for Not So Soft?

Incidentally, the title track is a spoken word piece, like “The Slant” on the previous LP, with no accompaniment, just Ani’s voice and the “record” button (which makes it a really fun record to remix, especially with hip-hop-style beats and scratches—try it!). Many of Ms. Difranco’s songs sound like poems set to music, so the “spoken word” bit is not a stretch. Did you see her on Def Poetry Jam? Her delivery was tight. We’ll hear her poetry many times on later albums, and it’s a good look for her. Same thing goes for the original artwork on her album artwork and CD booklets. 

Lyrical Gem(s): “Not So Soft”: “Those who call the shots / are never in the line of fire / Why? / When there is life for hire / out there / If a flag of truth were raised / We could watch every liar rise to wave it”.

Like I Said (1993)
Rating: 5
Clever title, for an album of revisited “hits” from Ani’s first two releases: “Anticipate”, “Rockabye”, “Not So Soft”, “Rush Hour”, “Lost Woman Song”, “Gratitude”, and so on. The songs are upgraded, in a sense, with percussion, strings, background vocals, and other touchups. You gotta love a song with a bagpipe (“She Says”) or a didjeridoo (“Roll With It”); it expands the musical palette. But, although I respect these different takes, I have to say I prefer the originals.

Definitely get this if you’re looking to collect everything.  Otherwise, you’d be better off spending your cash on any of the Official Bootlegs or Living in Clip (discussed and gushed over later in this Guide).

Imperfectly (1992)
Rating: 6
“Everything depicted herein is real,” say the liner notes, “any similarity to fictitious characters or events is completely coincidental.” Funny! Almost as good as the copyright notice that accompanies each Difranco album: “Unauthorized duplication, while sometimes necessary, is never as good as the real thing.” Imperfectly strikes me as an album of musical growth, and it grew on me like the “girl next door”—maybe I didn’t notice her changes because she was so familiar to me.

The acoustic guitar numbers are still there—in the anti-put-me-in-a-box anthem “In or Out”, in the epiphany of “If It Isn’t Her”, and the call to action in “The Waiting Song”.  “I’m No Heroine”, hits me the same way as Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive”, both of which rock the spot in concert.  There’s another spoken word piece, “Coming Up”, and even a song that captures the dread of being pulled over by the police (“Every State Line”).

But, hey, what’s that in “Fixing Her Hair”? A mandolin? Isn’t that a trumpet in “Circle of Light”? Hmm…a viola in “Served Faithfully”? Drums by Andy Stochansky? The expansion of her righteous sound is going to be a major factor in later albums, and Imperfectly chronicles that growth, stretch marks and all.

Lyrical Gem(s): from “Served Faithfully”: “Sometimes it seems like love / is just a fancy word for compromise”.

Puddle Dive (1993)
Rating: 4
The transition from acoustic guitar to multi-instrumental compositions continues. Out of everything in A.D.‘s discography, I purchased this one last, and the cover art played a role in that. I didn’t like all that optical yellow, like a tennis ball. I prefer the photo of Ani on the back of the CD booklet, especially the hairdo. With the bandanna, Ani kind of reminds me of the hip-hop band Dead Prez.  I mention this because it makes me wonder what I expected.  A “pretty” cover?  A “sweet” cover? Do female singers have to be “pretty” and “sweet”? Why is it an “anthem” when a male singer has something to say, but a “rant” when a female singer highlights an issue?

It’s a lot like that “growl”-singing on her previous outings—it might be tough to listen to, but then again, does it always have to be “easy” to listen to a woman’s experience? We’re fond of saying there’s “beauty” in struggle; that is, until we have to apply that adage to a real “struggle”, and then it’s all unpleasant and uncomfortable. I finally “got” the growl as a representation of that struggle, but of course by then it had mostly subsided and disappeared from her repertoire.

The music? Oh, yeah, that. My undying favorite is “Anyday”, featuring acoustic and steel guitar from the “A” lady herself.  It’s cool and understated, yet full of life. Ani knows how to make the most of silence, a gift similar to an actress who knows how to squeeze the tension out of a scene or a visual artist who is mindful of the negative space in his or her artwork. In that vein, there’s the blues-oriented “Back Around”, while “Blood on the Boardroom” (and “bored room”) flips the script on the typical all-male executive meeting. The spoken word joint, “I.Q.” again displays her poetry skills, although I could have done without the accordion behind her.

My moment of Zen: realizing that “Fourth of July” had me thinking of Paul Simon (but without the dancing Africans).

And so, you see, Puddle Dive has harmonicas and accordions and marimba and triangle and shakers and steel drums and tire rims (!) and samba whistles and little boxes of ticky tacky—and it’s all made by a little folksinger in New York, but it doesn’t all sound the same.

Lyrical Gem(s): From “Egos Like Hairdos”: “Everyone loves an underdog / but no one wants to be him”. From “My IQ”: “I sing sometimes for the war that I fight / ‘cause every tool is a weapon if you hold it right”.

Out of Range (1994)
Rating: 7
This album ranks high on the lists of many Righteous Babe fans, while others have asserted this is the beginning of the end for A.D.‘s purity of sound.  What’s all the fuss about? Well, the musical expansion of the previous two releases is almost complete, leading to a buffet of styles.

Things don’t seem too much different when you hear the catchy-as-hell opener “Buildings & Bridges”, except maybe that funky bass by Alisdair Jones, or when you get to the second track, the acoustic version of the title song. But once the folk-freaky “Letter to a John” hits you, musically and lyrically, you know something’s up. There’s a full band on “How Have You Been”, with trumpets, saxophones, and trombones! It’s a hot number—really, really hot—but you can almost feel some of the Righteous Babies getting mighty antsy about these extra flourishes. But “expansion” doesn’t always mean “piling it on”. Sometimes, it’s a matter of using a different instrument, like Chris Brown’s piano in “Hell Yeah” (and, no, that’s not “Chris Brown” as in the R&B Chris Brown—different dude).

Ani Difranco plays the keys in “You Had Time” while singing, quietly, “You are a china shop and I am a bull / You are really good food and I am full”. I’m not sure how she pulled that off, but she sure did. 

I also dig the electric version of “Out of Range” more than that acoustic version. And “The Diner” is so phat, I didn’t immediately notice these clever little remorseful pickup lines: “I ordered two coffees / one is for you / I was hoping you’d join me / ‘cause I ain’t got no money” and “I think you’re the least fucked up person I’ve ever met / and that may be as close to the real thing / as I’m ever gonna get”.

More Lyrical Gems: It kills me every time I hear her sing, in “Letter to a John”, “I was 11 years old / He was as old as my dad / He took something from me / I didn’t even know that I had.”

Not a Pretty Girl (1995)
Rating: 9
Not a Pretty Girl is, for some, the equivalent of Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Prince’s Purple Rain, or Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back—not in terms of sound, of course, but its stature among her other albums.  Maybe. It makes my head hurt trying to make those comparisons.  But this album is phenomenal, so you have to get it, even if you don’t start with it—get it.
Unworthiness never sounded so good (“Worthy”), a nursery rhyme never had so much spunk (“Cradle & All”), and—what, oh my goodness, is that friskiness I hear in “Shy”?  The title song is a mega-anthem, “I am not a pretty girl / That is not what I do / I ain’t no damsel in distress / and I don’t need to be rescued”. “The Million You Never Made” seems to be one of the best kiss-offs to the music industry around, with lines like, “If you don’t live what you sing about / your mirror is going to find out”. In hip-hop, that’s what we really mean by “keeping it real”, although the phrase has taken on a strange life of its own.

Elsewhere, Ani pulls the lever on capital punishment in “Crime for Crime” (from the view of the condemned, I think), noting how our “complicated machines” and “complex organizations” keep individuals from getting “blood on their hands” or having to understand life’s complexities on a personal level. “You might be the wrong color,” she sings, “You might just be too poor / Justice isn’t something just anyone can afford.” 

Some quirky things about this album: Ani’s artwork is a great touch; I love the liner notes, with the purplish-red lyrics written over shiny dark silver song titles in big letters; her mini-poem “Tiptoe” has outtakes and it’s funny hearing her work that piece out through the various mistakes; I almost fell out of my chair when I heard “Sorry I Am” in Lifetime’s premiere episode of State of Mind—I’m also glad Ani’s doing the show’s theme song; and, as much as I’m crushing on Alana Davis, the song “32 Flavors” is Ani’s song, and you heard on Not a Pretty Girl first.

Lyrical Gems: From “Am I Asking Too Much”: “I want somebody who can hold my interest / hold it and never let it fall / Somebody who can flatten me with a kiss that hits like a fist / or a sentence that stops me like a brick wall”

Ani Difranco performs on Def Poetry Jam

Dilate (1996)
Rating: 8
Look out, Bo Derek! You’re not the only one who can get her hair braided! Dilate‘s album cover shows a kneeling Ani Difranco with long blue braids. Sometimes, I feel like Dilate is better than Not a Pretty Girl, sometimes Not a Pretty Girl wins, but one thing is for sure: Ani sure can cuss! “Fuck you,” she says in “Untouchable Face”, “for existing in the first place.” Ouch! So bitter, yet so real.

That opening song sets the tone for a raw and hard rock-ish collection, from the wildness of “Outta Me, Onto You” to the fabulous joylessness of “Joyful Girl” (“Everything I do is judged / and they mostly get it wrong / But oh well / the bathroom mirror has not budged”—remember the mirror from “The Million You Never Made”? It’s baaaaaaaaaaack!). 

The last album was “not pretty”; this one’s not very “nice”. But that’s all right by me. You have to know I’m the guy who says “check” as the cable shows list the applicable TV ratings: strong language (bring it on!), graphic violence (awesome, the best kind!), brief nudity (hmmm, better if it’s not “brief”, but okay).

This is not the album you throw on to make the world seem brighter; it’s the album you listen to after the discovery of an awful truth. When “Done Wrong” starts with, “The wind is ruthless”, you just know it’s not going to be a happy day. When “Adam & Eve” begins, “Tonight you stooped to my level / I am your mangy little whore” (in the same song that uses the word “rhapsodize”, no less!), you know it’s not gonna be your average run-of-the-mill ballad.  And when you hear Ani sing “Amazing Grace” (with bongos!), you know there’s some weird shit going on. Only an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger could be more bizarre.  Fortunately, unlike Walker, it’s a good sort of weird.

Other interesting songs: “Superhero”, “Napoleon”, and the title track. “Superhero” is a different take on the heroic theme of Imperfectly‘s “I’m No Heroine”, but it picks up the pace in an epic way, getting funky with acoustic guitar, bass, and synth (all played by Ani). There’s a big scoop of regret in this song, since the lead voice’s significant other is her kryptonite (“You are like a phone booth that I somehow stumbled into / Now look at me, I am just like everybody else”). “Napoleon” chronicles the lead voice’s interaction with someone (a musician, maybe?) who has joined up with “an army of suits” because “they always pay for lunch” and “they believe in what I do”. To this, Ani is like, “Yeah, well, everyone is a fucking Napoleon.” In hip-hop, we call that a “diss”. Another good line is in the title song: “I see you and I’m so unsatisfied / I see you and I dilate.” Well, damn.

Oh, damn. I forgot to mention “Shameless”! How could I forget this album’s monster jam?

More Joy, Less Shame EP (1996)
Rating: 4
The lower rating here is because it’s an EP, and also because you’ve gotta really like the song “Joyful Girl” to dig it. I love “Joyful Girl”, so, like the 2 Live Crew sample, I say, “Me love this EP long time”, especially the “Danger & Uncertainty Mix”. It’s also interesting to hear her perform the song with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, something you don’t see everyday. I’m trying to picture Beyonce doing “Ring the Alarm” with an orchestra and the image just isn’t coming together for me. 

Also, the EP features a live version of “Both Hands”, which is great because anything related to Ani-in-person is great, as well as a Prince-like version of “Shameless” (the “Bathtub Mix”).

Living in Clip (1997)
Rating: 9
This is it, one of the best live sets you can get. Yes, of course, the James Brown Live at the Apollo album is the bomb—no doubt—but this one is masterful in its own right. I’d even be so bold as to suggest this as an appropriate start for your Ani collection.

You get two discs filled with kick-ass performances, plus a thick-ass photo book.  You get her interactions with the crowd, but not too much of it, and, best of all, the cherry-picked performances fit together seamlessly. She managed to rock the songs I didn’t like on the studio releases, and even the “Amazing Grace” thing comes off okay! Her liner notes highlight some of the technical aspects of the recording, and summarize the experience of Concert Ani like so, “I’ve never been a studio musician. Very few folksingers are, I think. We travel. We play music for people, not posterity. No permanence. No perfection.” It might not be perfect, but it sounds pretty darn close.
My favorite performances, besides the whole freakin’ thang, are: the forever cool “Napoleon”, her gruffer rendition of “Shameless” (best version I’ve heard), a jungle-style reworking of “Not So Soft”, and a killer take on “Letter to a John”.

Little Plastic Castle (1998)
Rating: 6
If you’ve ever wondered what Ani Difranco would look like with the body of a goldfish, your ship has come in! It’s part of the album cover. Strange album art signals strange tunes, with running themes of fish, fishbowls, and graves (loosely connected to “sleepin’ wit’ the fishes”, maybe?). 

Lyrically, the title track sets it off, “They say goldfish have no memory / I guess their lives are very much like mine / and the little plastic castle is a surprise every time”. But then it breaks out musically into an impromptu festival of horns—sax, trumpet, and trombone. “Glass House” makes a song out of “glass” and stone-throwing, while “Deep Dish” would be great fun for a musical. As for the “graves”, “Fuel” is a sleek rap that shows us a little of what MC Ani D. can do on the mic. It begins with an interesting news item in New York:

They were digging a new foundation in Manhattan
And they discovered a slave cemetery there.
May their souls rest easy now that lynching is frowned upon
And we’ve moved on to the electric chair.

From there, the song elevates the cemetery to a metaphor—for digging beyond the surface, for getting beyond the muckraking and must-see television. We’re left to wonder if, by going deeper into ourselves, we might spark something truly worthwhile.

Big sounds abound, as in “Loom”, but you’ve gotta love the sublime “Swan Dive”, a crowd pleaser at the concerts, and 14 minutes of subdued guitar work in “Pulse” (Ani pulling a jazz session duet with the trumpet is unexpected but worth the purchase).

Up Up Up Up Up Up (1999)
Rating: 6
After cracking on Puddle Dive‘s album cover, I hope to redeem myself by loving this one. It’s Ani D. with her head down and her arm raised, posing her upturned left palm to the camera. She’s holding various paper cutouts of the word “Up” that resemble the blocky sidewalk under her feet. As a less subtle allusion, the back cover shows a church tower peeking over a building top. Could it be…a concept album?

The set is modestly tied together by a religious theme. Take, for instance, the title track (“God’s work isn’t done by God, it’s done by people”); the double meaning in the song title “Angel Food”; the attempt at a meaningful mountaintop experience in “Everest”; or the whopping 12 minute, 55 second jam session of “Hat Shaped Hat” with more call-and-response action than a southern church revival. “I won’t be afraid,” testifies Ani D., “to let my talents shine!” 

Elsewhere, there are overtones of understanding and forgiveness (“Angry Anymore”), and undertones of asceticism (“Come Away From It”). The aggressive workout of “Jukebox” provides a contrast to the somberness of “‘Tis of Thee”. “Know Now Then” wraps its girlfriend problems in a neat, head-nodding bow.

While I’ve always liked many of these songs individually, I haven’t been able to get with them as an album. That’s odd, I think, given the running theme. On the other hand, this joint is memorable to me for Julie Wolf’s contributions to the Babe camp, credited here with wurlitzer, organ, piano, accordian, clavinet, and vocals. Sounds like a full day to me.

Lyrical Gem(s): from “‘Tis of Thee”: “They caught the last poor man on a poor man’s vacation / They cuffed him and they confiscated his stuff / They dragged his black ass down to the station / and said, ‘OK, the streets are safe now / all your pretty white children can come out and see spot run’”.

To the Teeth (1999)
Rating: 5
On this LP, Ani Difranco was rolling with a spectacularly talented crew (everybody needs a posse, even non-hip-hop artists!): Jason Mercer, Julie Wolf, Brian Wolf, Daren Hahn, Kurt Swinghammer, and let’s not forget the likes of Andy Stochansky and Alisdair Jones from earlier efforts. As a bit of trivia, crickets are credited with using their legs in “Going Once”.

To the Teeth, however, features two very important guests who fit perfectly with the LP’s jazz, reggae, and hip-hop influences: Maceo Parker, the saxophone king, and Prince (during his unpronounceable special symbol period). The jazz is enjoyable, but you can tell it doesn’t come easy and maybe the gang is forcing it a little.

Much like Imperfectly and Puddle Dive, there’s a range of experimentation here, even in the vocal department. On some songs (“Back Back Back”, “Going Once”) Ani adopts smoky vocals that make for a delightful surprise; on others (“Carry You Around”), she’s using clever vocal arrangements, she’s yelling like a step-right-up-folks barker at an amusement park (“Freakshow”), and she’s building songs around near whispers (“Cloud Blood”).

Musically, there’s slow grinding soul, calypso rhythms, and classic rock. “Arrival’s Gate” makes good on the comparison between airport terminals (pre-9-11) and Heaven, although the music reminds me of Hee Haw, the country music variety show of the ‘80s (remember that show?).  But, hey, that’s cool, especially when the same album gets busy with hip-hop (“Swing”), embellished by turntables and a guest rap by Maceo Parker’s son Corey). And, speaking of hip-hop, you don’t think only rap records can push the so-called envelope, do you? How about the title track, a song about gun control, or the lack thereof, and who gets to exercise control over policies and public opinion. It makes reference to Malcolm X (“He said the chickens all come home to roost / Yeah, Malcolm forecasted this flood”) and uses irony to tackle its theme: “Open fire on Hollywood / Open fire on MTV / Open fire on NBC / and CBS and ABC”.

“Providence”, with Prince, alternates between quiet balladry and full blast rock. This isn’t their only collaboration. They worked together on “Eye Love U But Eye Don’t Trust U Anymore”, from Prince’s Rave Unto the Joy Fantastic, an album filled with guest appearances.  I gotta say, if Prince and Ani decided to do a full album together, I wouldn’t toss it out of my stereo.

Lyrical Gem(s): Ani picked “Hello Birmingham”, a letter of sorts to the historic Alabama city, but I would have gone with the swaggering “Soft Shoulder”. I especially like these lines: “Letters littered with little lewd pictures / drawn by the ghost of Woody Guthrie / who would use your big thick hand / just to draw one or two for me”. 

Ani Difranco—Shameless (live)

Revelling/Reckoning (2001)
Rating: 10
I love Revelling/Reckoning for the same reasons critics (like me) usually throw shade on albums, mainly: too many songs (29 songs, including several short interludes) and too many styles (funk, poetry, folk, jazz, a song with kazoo!). “She should’ve trimmed some of the songs,” we say about the length. “It doesn’t work as an album,” we say about the styles.

There are times when these criticisms are warranted, but Revelling/Reckoning ain’t one of ‘em. Oh, yes, this record has its detractors. After its release, some Ani Difranco fans dismantled their websites, leaving messages on their homepages explaining why they couldn’t be fans anymore! Among other things, they cited the direction of Ani’s music as a key factor.  Fine, but in my experience, Revelling/Reckoning converts more hip-hop and R&B fans to Ani, and to “folk” in general, than anything else in her catalog. They hear this one and suddenly want everything she’s ever done!

Maybe I’m not the right person to confront the haters. After all, I thought Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants was intriguing, and that album gets more than its share of scathing responses (musicians seem to love it, though).  But I sincerely believe there will eventually be three standouts from the current Ani Difranco discography. The first is Living in Clip, for outstanding sound quality and wise performance choices. The second is Revelling/Reckoning, and I’ll explain why right now.

Disc One, the “Revelling” side, is musically bright and frolicking, even when the lyrics reveal pain or introspection, showcasing Princely funk (“Ain’t That the Way”, “O.K.”, “Rock Scissors Paper”), upbeat and jazzy numbers (“Heartbreak Even”), a spoken word masterpiece (“Tamburitza Lingua”), an instrumental (“Beautiful Night”), two genius ballads (“Garden of Simple”, “Marrow”), an allegory in song form (“Fierce Flawless”), a bit of melancholy (“Whatall Is Nice”), and that strange song with the kazoo (“Kazoointoit”). It’s a trippy ride, and the song sequence takes you up, brings you down, and takes you up and back down again—“revelling”, indeed. And, yes, the actual song called “Revelling” is on the “Reckoning” side, but don’t worry about a concrete “theme” so much. It’s the way you feel that explains why one disc is “Revelling” and the other is “Reckoning”.  Feel it, don’t think it.

Disc Two, the “Reckoning” side, is soft and acoustic, featuring topnotch songwriting and Ani’s well-regarded penchant for acoustic guitar. By now, you might have heard that she’s kinda into that. Well, yeah, and she displays it in glorious fashion. There are still more instruments than on her debut way back when—trumpets, clarinets, pianos, accordions, organs, shakers, saxophones—but it all comes together so well, even with the brief electric guitar interludes between songs.  It’s as if those previous albums of experimentation had merely been rehearsals for this album, the juggernaut. History will rule in my favor on this, believe me.

There are so many high points, it’s tough to pick them out individually. Still, my favorites are:  “Reckoning”, “So What”, “Grey”, “Subdivision”, “Old Old Song”, and “Revelling”.  All of these songs are deliberate, intense, and almost painfully introspective. If “Reckoning” were a radio station, its slogan would be, “All beautiful, all the time”.

By the way: (1) this double album marks the beginning of Ani’s painstaking album packaging, although the folding cardboard covers are a drag because they wear so easily, (2) Ani’s got dreadlocks in the album’s very flattering and serene photos, and it works for her (you go, Ani!), (3) People who don’t like Revelling/Reckoning are just plain wrong, and (4) I believe the third standout from the current discography will be Knuckle Down. Thought I’d forget, didn’t you?

Lyrical gem(s): From “Subdivision”:  “White people are so scared of black people / They bulldoze out to the country / and put up houses on little loop-dee-loop streets / and while America gets its heart cut right out of its chest / the Berlin Wall still runs down main street”.

So Much Shouting/So Much Laughter (2002)
Rating: 8
Let’s say you’re into a lot of music, and there are (eyebrow raise) certain artists you want to collect, and (gulp) Ani Difranco (clenched teeth) is not one of them (gasp). You want some Ani in your musical diet, but you don’t want everything. What do you do? Do you:

(a) Find a real Ani fan to give you a swift kick in the rear?
(b) Purchase Living in Clip, So Much Shouting/So Much Laughter, and Knuckle Down?
(c) Get frustrated at having to sift through Ani’s extensive backlog, and opt to pick two or three at random?
(d) Both (a) and (b).

The answer is (d). You take that kick in the butt, and then you get Living in Clip, Knuckle Down, and this album, So Much Shouting/So Much Laughter.
Taking it’s title from a line in Not a Pretty Girl‘s “Cradle & All”, Shouting/Laughter is another double disc affair constructed from live shows by Ani and her band. Like Living in Clip, the sound quality is top of the line while, unlike Living in Clip, the interaction between singer and crowd is kept to a minimum.

Some of these live versions are quite similar to their studio counterparts (“Grey”, “Dilate”, “Revelling”), but others have been rearranged into medleys (“Letter to a John/Tamburitza Lingua”, Loom/Pulse”) or re-imagined altogether (“32 Flavors” and “My IQ” could be hip-hop songs, “Cradle & All” has horns). Some of this re-imagining might be explained by the CD booklet, where Ani is quoted:

It was a part of my mission on this live record to repent for some of my sins against my own songs. It saddens me that many of my songs which I like are only represented in recordings which I don’t like. So I’m slowly learning, as my life whizzes by me, how to sing them.

There are also songs from the upcoming (at the time) LP Evolve (“Shrug”, “Welcome To:”). That album ended up fitting nicely alongside Revelling/Reckoning. Maybe it should have been a triple album: Revelling/Reckoning/Evolving.

One non-album song on this set is “Self Evident”, originally an untitled poem written after and about September 11, 2001, and performed at Carnegie Hall that year. It’s a solid piece, and quite a jazzy musical journey in its Shouting/Laughter form, along with some choice words for President You-Know-Who: “‘Cause take away our PlayStations / and we are a third world nation / under the thumb of some blue-blood royal son / who stole the Oval Office in that phony election”.  Hint: his last name rhymes with “push”. I’m not calling that guy out—my plate’s kind of full right now.  I don’t need to spice things up by becoming a “detainee” or a “person of interest”.  Still, you gotta love it. MC Ani D. strikes again!

Evolve (2003)
Rating: 7
Ms. Difranco continues to follow her muse, and earns a well-deserved Grammy (with art director Brian Grunert) for Best Recording Package in the process.

Evolve, as I said earlier, could’ve been disc three in the Revelling/Reckoning set. Musically, it’s a smooth but thrilling ride through the countryside.  Destination? The “Promised Land” (the first track), but maybe, as the album title suggests, the real joy comes from trying to get there.  “Tell me,” she sings. “Is there something wrong, girlfriend? What’s with this new version of who you are?” And although the song doesn’t seem to be about the frowns at her musical eclecticism, that quote makes me wonder if she had plans to address that.

Something is always “In the Way” (the swingin’ second track) of getting what you want, quite a conundrum. You try to get over it, soaring above your obstacles until…like “Icarus” (track three, foreboding and wonderful)…you eventually return to earth. Sometimes you land on your feet. Sometimes you “Slide”, like super-funky song number four that sports the line Lil’ Kim wished she’d come up with, “And my p*ssy is a tractor / and this is a tractor pull”. “O My My” (song five), you might say, no doubt thinking that “if we let love” (or life) “off of its leash” we might “fear how fierce it would be”.
But that’s all part of the process. We live, we fight, we love, continually, as we try to “Evolve” (track six, a sweet sounding but serious-minded nursery rhyme), only to end up behaving like moths who’re “bonkers for that bare bulb”—evidenced by our “supposed authority over nature”, our incarceration rates, our wars.  If we know this, why do we “Shrug” (the prodding, questioning track seven)? Is it a “side effect of this dirty drug” (life, love, heartbreak)? Or is it merely a “Phase” (track eight), characterized by a “lack of inspiration” and a “slow leak of deflation”. Hopefully, you’re only “Here For Now” (track nine) and you’re wishing “your heart will send up the white flag this time”.
Pause, take a deep breath, relax. Take a moment (“Second Intermission”, breezy and laidback track 10).  Life’s path is “Serpentine” (track 11), and even when your “inner pessimist” gets the best of you—mired in “kool-aid and manifest destiny”, “TV junkies”, and steep “mind control”—you realize you’re headed somewhere. “Welcome To” (stutter-stepping final track) solace, to “taking the good stuff down off the shelf”, to “the art of conversation with yourself”. Welcome to evolution.

Lyrical Gem: from “Evolve”: “It took me too long to realize / that I don’t take good pictures / cuz I have the kind of beauty that moves”.

Educated Guess (2004)
Rating: 5
Grammy-nominated (Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Recording Package) Educated Guess is sometimes called Ani’s “return to form”. I disagree—her form never went anywhere, but mostly gone are the jazz musings and the hints of R&B. The band’s gone, too, leaving Miss Ani to herself. She’s playing, singing, recording, and mixing. The disc itself is decorated like an audio reel.

Educated Guess‘s packaging, like much of Ms. Difranco’s output, has a personal feel, adorned with original artwork and interspersed onion skinned pages (“We”, “Have”, “This”, they say when you read them together).  “Swim”, a sparse and plucky comparison of love to an ocean, is an instant classic. Others require a few listens to get you fully settled into the vibe, but when you do, you’ll be treated to foot tapping ditties of loneliness (“Company”) and quite a few takes on relationships (“Bodily”, “You Each Time”, “Bubble”, “Bliss Like This”). 

You get the absolute best commentary on the male-female dynamic in “Origami”: “I am an all-powerful Amazon warrior / not just sniveling girl” and “I know men are delicate origami creatures / who need women to unfold them / hold them when they cry”. And, although I rarely smile when I hear the title track or “Rain Check”, there’s still a lot of heaven in that acoustic guitar of hers. Ditto “Animal”.
What’s different about Educated Guess aside from Ani’s do-it-yourself work ethic behind the boards: the poetry.  Short poems create serene, thoughtful intermissions, while the robust “Grand Canyon” juxtaposes choice guitar licks against Ani’s keen observations, especially, “Why can’t all decent men and women call themselves feminists…Out of respect for those who fought for this. I mean, look around. We have this”. With the exception of a few goodies that shouldn’t be altered, Educated Guess might’ve been strong as a spoken word album.

The low rating is probably an overreaction to the way it was recorded. The poems worked out fine, warm and cozy even, but most of the songs sound distorted to me; they actually make my teeth itch! My solution has been to compile a homemade Educated Guess LP using live performances from the Official Bootleg series, and my makeshift version gets a 6 or a 7, depending on how the song sequence goes.

Knuckle Down (2005)
Rating: 9
One day, there will be a film about Ani Difranco. First of all, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Yes, of course I want to write the screenplay.  Second, if the film had come out in 2007, Knuckle Down could’ve been the soundtrack.

You don’t always know what you’re going to get from an Ani Difranco album.  That’s a good thing. Other artists can offer predictability or, more positively stated, “consistency”. Here, Ani D. rekindles the band sound as her trusty musician cronies rejoin the process—Todd Sickafoose (string bass, Wurlitzer), Patrick Warren (piano, Chamberlin, sampler), Jay Bellerose (drums, percussion), Andrew Bird (violin, glockenspiel, whistling), Tony Scherr (electric guitar), Julie Wolf (melodica). She also brings in Joe Henry as co-producer. By the sound of it, she made a wise decision.

Dedicated to her father, Dante Americo Difranco, Knuckle Down turns remembrance and memory into bright, colorful themes, channeling all the emotional complexities that occur when you lose someone dear. Yet, it’s reflective in a wistful way, like when you’re looking at your old photographs and you’re wondering aloud, “Damn, what happened to the kid in that picture?” 

So, when Life happens, you “Knuckle Down”, learn to “be okay with it”, like the title track says. The song’s furious strumming, though, suggests that “okay” doesn’t mean keeping still—no, you have to keep moving, even if you’ve learned how to mimic the stillness of rocks, as the lead voice does in “Studying Stones”. There are lots of delicious strings on this record, and Ani D. herself even said it wasn’t as “horn-y” as previous releases. That’s in reference to the saxes and trombones and such, but there’s still a sexy tune in there, “Sunday Morning”, which isn’t sexy because it’s amorous, but rather because of its depiction of two people in a state of utter and complete togetherness (“You’re doing your thing / and I am doing mine / Speaking words more a formality / cuz we can feel we are of one mind”).

Knuckle Down‘s got some really clever analogies that work way better in sound than you might think: A companion who’s like a “Seeing Eye Dog”, memories that get tossed down a “Manhole” (slight emphasis on the “man”), and a relationship in which one person calibrates the other (“Modulation”). There are moments, too, when Knuckle Down almost feels like a country album, as if you could listen to it while sitting under a starry sky, like they do in country-western films, huddled up to a campfire, eating beans and drinking from a canteen that never gets empty.

The spoken word piece, “Parameters”, has gotten a lot of attention, partly because it opens with the idea of an intruder in the speaker’s home, but also because the “intruder” could be something more abstract and symbolic—Life personified, maybe? One’s own conscience? Insecurity, in all its forms?
The critique of this album is that it’s not as “political” as her usual stuff. She doesn’t sound “angry” enough, I guess. But, geez, is there no pleasing us? Write songs about what’s wrong with the world, and we think you complain too much. Write songs about how the world could be better and you’re too preachy. Write songs about neither and we want to know what happened to the complaining and the preaching. Plus, I don’t see how Ani’s observations of her childhood among women who were busy with activism, family, and community can be chalked up as “less political” than songs like Self-Evident"s or “To the Teeth”. It’s different, yes, but it’s all very powerful.

Reprieve (2006)
Rating: 8
One of my favorite albums of 2006, Reprieve could be the offspring of Educated Guess and Knuckle Down.  Like Educated, Ani handles most of the instruments herself, except for some help from Mike Napolitano (“mix doctor”), Saint Claude (assisting with sounds like “traffic, trains, birds, rain, thunder, and frogs”), and Todd Sickafoose on string bass, giving the songs a precise thump like he did on Knuckle Down

Ani Difranco’s songwriting has never made much use of bridges, and Reprieve doesn’t change that fact, but there’s often some great musical breakdowns between verses. Also, there’s a surreal, tip-of-the-tongue quality to the lyrical and musical execution, like an attempt to capture the fleeting images from a recent dream. In “Subconscious”, she sings, “I’m tossing and turning between sleepless dreams / I’m poised on the edge of what it all means”.

Some songs have a peculiar bite that you don’t expect from the beauty of the compositions, especially when it comes to “war” (“A Spade”). “Millennium Theater”, which almost has that distortion problem I mentioned on Educated Guess, digs into the spectacles of orange alerts, Halliburton, Enron, and (my personal favorite) “chief justices for sale”. The ending, if spoken, might have made a fantastic album intro:

Ladies and gentlemen
Welcome to tonight’s show.
The Millennium Theater
Asks that you not smoke.
Please turn off your cell phones
And forget what you think you know.

Decree uses the same “step right up, folks!” approach as “Millennium Theater”; it’s entertaining as well as a little scary. You know, y’all, we really have to make the world a better place so Ani won’t have to write these kinds of tunes. At the same time, the title track is a spoken word piece that reminds me of Knuckle Down‘s “Paradigm”, except this one’s less oblique, more to the point: “Feminism ain’t about equality / it’s about reprieve”. Both poems are pretty great, though.

The most interesting pieces, however, are the ones that explore the interpersonal realm. Nicotine drives home the point that “love is a puzzle”, and it’s interesting to see how people fit together in these songs. Sometimes, one puts the other in a trance (“Hypnotize”); other times, love is unreturned like a letter that’s never answered or returned to sender (“Unrequited”).

One more thing: the album sleeve displays a tree missing many of its limbs, contrasting the full, robust tree on the album case (the case fits inside the sleeve).  According to the notes, the “cover tree” was inspired by Yosuke Yamahata’s photo taken mere hours following the explosion of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki, Japan.  The “old eucalyptus tree” gets a mention in “Reprieve”, and I’ve wondered if the album opener, “Hypnotized”, could be from the tree’s perspective: “So that’s how you found me / rain falling around me / looking down at a worm / with a long way to go”.

Canon (2007)
Rating: 8
Although it doesn’t include all of her albums, Canon is loaded with Ani Difranco’s “hits”. There’s “32 Flavors”, “Joyful Girl”, “Subdivision”, “Studying Stones”, and so on—but the five tracks re-recorded specifically for this package steal the show.  There’s a grungy version of “Shameless” that kicks major ass, as well as an expansive interpretation of “Both Hands” that reminds me of Prince’s “When You Were Mine”. “Napoleon” and “Overlap” get incredible makeovers—the former just rocks so hard, while the latter is the smoothest thing since silk. The biggest winner, though, is “Your Last Bold Move”. It was the acoustic opener to the Reckoning disc; here, it has a bold swagger and hot percussion that I actually find superior to the original. 

Ani Difranco—Millennium Theater

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/a-righteous-boys-hip-hop-journey-through-babeland/