Ani Difranco

Jennifer Bendery
Ani Difranco

Ani Difranco

City: Austin, Texas
Venue: The Backyard
Date: 2002-10-20

Ani Difranco
Photo credits: Jennifer Bendery
"If you can't raise awareness, raise hell"
-- Rita Mae Brown
It was a crisp evening in Austin, Texas, as thousands of girlfriends, mamas, and teenaged chicks herded down leaf-strewn trails and into the rustic Backyard concert venue to claim the best viewing spots first. With some fans swapping excited stories of "the last time I saw Ani Difranco", and others insisting to disbelieving friends that Not a Pretty Girl was a far better album than the more recent To the Teeth, this estrogen-heavy crowd was jittery and giggly in anticipation of the tiny, fuzzy-haired woman who, in stark contrast to her physical size, is possibly the most larger-than-life folk hero this generation has ever seen. The moon fattened up, the Oak trees took their places as the backdrop of the stage, and Ani Difranco emerged with her trademark grin and acoustic guitar in hand, immediately greeted with screams from smitten teenaged girls with blue hair and nose rings, shout-outs from long-time fans (including yours truly) loyal to Ani's 14-CD repertoire of intensely personal ballads and pissed-off political rants, and "thank you God" prayers from fanatical front-row fans who kept slipping past security and draping themselves across the front of the stage in a dreamy fugue of delight. After stirring up some hearty applause for opening act Toshi Reagon for "laying it out" with her soulful, solo, acoustic set, Ani ripped into her own high-energy set of songs, poems, and spoken word, touching on issues as diverse as harsh political condemnations, light-hearted stories of discombobulated moths, passionate relationship woes, and jamming, joyful celebrations of life, love, and adventure. She opened with the upbeat, road-trip classic "God's Country", later moving into a slower, introspective new song, "Swim", about breaking away from suffocating love, and then offered a feisty rendition of "Swandive", an anthem about the scary plunge into a serious relationship, which drew cheers from the audience with its bloody good lyrics: "I'm going to do my best swan dive / Into shark-infested waters / I'm gonna pull out my tampon / And start splashing around." Sandwiched between jazzy guitar riffs, gentle crooning, and strong words in support of pro-choice and anti-death penalty measures, Ani played a surprising number of brand new songs, including "Educated Guess", which hints at her current personal affairs as it addresses a happiness at having "a whole new family and I'm in love with each of them," but then speaks to someone who she wishes was stronger and fiercer, to whom she gives her love and doesn't "care if it is more than you deserve". As nearly every fan in the audience could attest to, Ani's immense lyrical quality and top-notch musical skill was in full effect that night. She kept the masses engaged, singing, dancing, and starry-eyed (I heard at least four "she is sooo cute" gushes from girlies around me). Which is why it might sound weird to say that, despite her expert skill in bonding with the audience, her moving stories and complex guitar rhythms, her seeming 110 percent heart and soul thrown into the performance, something seemed off. Beneath it all, Ani just seemed sad. She even said so herself. She is sad. Her flannel shirt and baggy pants hung from her body, a stark contrast to her more usual dazzling self in fabulous go-go boots or hot leather pants. Dreadlocks snaked around her shoulders and nearly down to her butt in the back. She was unarmed without her band, the musical sounds of accordions, keyboards, bass, drums, and horns that in recent years have infiltrated Ani's music faded under the buzz of the spotlight centered solely on Ani. It was startling to sense this powerhouse of a performer seeming glum, going through the motions of performing, something likely unapparent to relatively new fans absorbed by her intense presence. But hints of sorrow transformed into burning energy later in the evening as Ani appeared to shift gears and tackle directly the issues on her mind: she launched into passionate and gut-wrenching poems and vocals against the unjustifiable force the U.S. government threatens in the Middle East. It was most evident in this moment of the show that Ani's mood was reminiscent of the more raw energy of her earlier days, a more pure, affected "Ani" that often gets lost in the musically complex, experimental sounds of her newer music. Indeed, it was in this moment that Ani allowed herself to be totally exposed. From here, the mood of the show shifted. As blue and red spotlights illuminated droves of manufactured fog swirling about onstage, the smoke began to look like heat radiating from Ani's body to the point of fire as she banged on her guitar and howled into the microphone, pushing pain and frustration and retaliation out through her voice, turning to primal cries and fierce guitar hammerings to physically fight back against feelings of insignificance, against those claiming to represent her, represent us, while making horrific war-time decisions in our names. She often faded in and out of the smoke, which added to the dramatic effect of hearing her voice booming but with no origin. She quietly offered a toast to the families in Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq. She eloquently read a poem by U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, a poem that she said "seems to come from a place I've been living in", a poem that centers on a voice that yearns to describe the beauty it sees in the ordinary but feels unheard and insignificant. Ani then stood under a lone spotlight in the center of the stage, with no guitar, and slowly recited her poem that responds to September 11, "Self Evident". This poem is her most harsh, most detailed, and most memorable yet, as it critiques U.S. corporate and government power: "take away our Play Stations/and we are a third world nation/under the thumb of some blue blood royal son/who stole the oval office and that phony election." Humorous but firm, this poem suggests that we "give the big oil companies the finger finally" and tells the U.S. "government to pull its big dick out of the sand of someone else's desert." Ani also plays with language from the Declaration of Independence in the poem's title and in the lyrics: "and we hold these truths to be self-evident / 1. George W. Bush is not president / 2. America is not a true democracy / 3. The media is not fooling me." The poem ends with a plea that we make sure the people who died on September 11 did not die in vain; that is, under a government that now seeks to use them as pawns for "passion play". A pause followed the poem's dramatic closing, which then drew tremendous, would-somebody-please-stand-up-and-hug-Ani applause. I don't know if she felt better but the crowd went nuts in support of her frank opinions, and I just felt sad and changed, for the first time realizing that Ani might feel as helpless as I do in trying to make an impression on anything important. The fog and the show soon faded as Ani said goodnight to fans begging for more more more after only a one-song encore. As a fan of 10 years, I see Ani Difranco as a faithful barometer of the U.S. social and political climate. She tirelessly uses her music and poetry to point out the things that bother her but that she, like us, may feel powerless against. So, while Congress members are one-by-one disappointedly giving into George Dubya, who clings to his own evil plans for obvious oil-based financial gains and vengeance for his daddy, at least we can count on Ani Difranco, with her articulate, on-target approach to so many issues, to be out there somewhere, immersed in the masses, keeping the silenced majority united, and reminding those who may be unsure of how to use their voices that they, too, can raise hell.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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