Ani Difranco is a sort of modern-day Holden Caulfield. That is, if the subject of Catcher in the Rye would have been a bisexual female songwriter from Buffalo who toured relentlessly with his acoustic guitar and baby dreads. Or even a real person instead of a character in a book, for that matter. That last part might be the most important, and also go the farthest towards explaining Ani Difranco’s strange appeal, since what the talented singer-songwriter gives you more than anything else in her work is realness. Forget about the ubiquitous promises of today’s hip-hop MCs pleading their own reality-based music. Ani doesn’t need to convince you she’s not full of shit. You can just tell.
Ani Difranco is also practically a Canadian. Born in Buffalo, New York, she spent her childhood training in the Northern city to be a ballerina. But somewhere along the way she picked up an acoustic guitar, and learned how to project her voice. Before she was 20, Difranco had written more than 100 songs. By then she had hocked her ballet shoes and moved to New York City, where she made a name for herself with soul-baring acoustic and spoken word appearances in small clubs and coffeehouses. Soon she was manufacturing and selling albums of her material to sell to a growing fan base. She eventually started Righteous Babe Records to handle the pressing and distribution, and she’s been true to her own label ever since.
With her continued success, mostly due to word-of-mouth and tape trading, along with the relentless touring of America’s smaller venues through much of the early nineties, the major labels inevitably took notice. But Difranco always deferred their offers, satisfied to retain complete creative control on her own work through Righteous Babe Records. It also meant a prolific output. Since 1990, she’s released 12 studio albums. There’s no way the marketing department of any big five record company was going to let an artist saturate the market like that. As it turns out, it didn’t do anything to hurt her popularity. Although each recording had its own unique flavor, the constant crackle of Difranco’s beat box acoustic guitar style and smart, political lyrics were always present.
Over the last couple of years Difranco has carried on a public infatuation with small horn sections and jazzier arrangements during her live performances. On her last release, a double studio-album called Revelling:Reckoning, she recorded with much of this new love. Now, on her latest CD Evolve, it’s clear that the title implies a final departure from her previous singer/songwriter incarnation, and into something else.
On Evolve, it’s difficult to pull out specific songs and break them down individually, since so much of the album’s “sound” is the same. Not that this new sound is all that bad. Filled with tight brass and bass arrangements, Difranco demonstrates the same mastery of jazzy vocal intonation that she’s always applied to her spoken word rants. Many of the songs on the album are backed by a soft syncopated beat played with more brushes and cymbals than drum sticks and tom toms. Aired in the proper coffeehouse, it might go perfectly with that Kafka paperback you’re reading. But unfortunately, DiFranco’s infatuation with the new arrangements enshrouds her literate lyrics. Usually, her lines stand out and demand to be noticed like kids with ADD. Instead, what we have is a collection of faintly rehashed words salvaged from a decade’s worth of output that rarely repeated itself. It’s recycled even down to DiFranco’s hearty laughter at the end of songs on Evolve, reminiscent of 1995’s Not a Pretty Girl.
“Promised Land” opens the album with all of Difranco’s usual bombast. Except this time she seems to be defending rather than revealing herself, with lines like “What’s with the new version of who you are?” Difranco realizes that changes in her music are inevitable, but that doesn’t mean that fans will blindly accept what she’s become. So with some care, she nestles the new her inside of an old story she likes to tell: two people circling around one another, trying to figure out how much of the other’s emotional baggage they’ll have to carry. It’s a clever strategy, and probably the best way that Difranco could have opened the new album. She’s happy to wear her transformation on her sleeve, all the while letting the audience know that there’s still some of the same old Ani.
If Difranco used the first song to dip her toes in the water to find out how warm it was, she jumps right into the ocean with the rest of the album. Even if many of the tracks are just lukewarm. “In the Way” is the heart-wrenching and intelligent breakup song you know she’s capable of writing, minus the clever lyrics or pools of insecurity you swear you’ve peered into yourself. “Icarus” follows in the same vein, and catchy phrases such as “I don’t mean heaven like godlike / Cuz the animal I am knows very well / That nature is our teacher and our mother / And god is just another story that we tell” will give you the nagging feeling you’ve heard them someplace before. The truth of the matter is that you have heard something quite similar, on another Ani Difranco album.
Difranco caught the world’s attention with her amazing ability to make words jump through hoops. Her deft use of the English language blurred the line between spoken word poetry and the singer/songwriter. Evolve is not entirely without its moments of poetic brilliance. “Slide” is shining example that Difranco has not sacrificed captivating lyrics entirely for the sake of tight horn arrangements. It’s just the woman and her acoustic guitar, singing about compromise and giving into desire. When a simple drum and bass line kicks in you feel like you could just be listening to someone standing on the subway platform playing for the rush hour crowd. She hasn’t forgotten how to make a song everyone needs to hear.
“Serpentine” represents the promise of what combination of well thought out, Wynton Marselis-inspired arrangements can be, when coupled with Difranco’s lyrical stabs. It’s a long, meandering piece of work that takes some time to build. To evolve, maybe. It includes the best of her break-beat acoustic guitar picking and a jazzy bass line that takes just long enough to kick in. If this is a glimpse of what Difranco is attempting to evolve into, she might just make Charles Darwin proud. Considering her history as a DIY anti-music industry poster child, it’s interesting to hear the new direction she’s taking. As Difranco becomes more experienced with the sound, her music will most likely get better. Because she is the master of her own domain on Righteous Babe Records, she can afford to make an experimental album like Evolve, and then grow into the sound later. Just like she did when she released her debut Not So Soft back in 1991. Now it’s just a question of whether her fans still have the patience to evolve right along with her.