To understand Ani DiFrancos work as it stands now, it helps to know where she lives. The wandering feminist folkie veteran (we can call her that now, right?) has made her home in New Orleans over the last decade or so and its fueled both her well-known and well-worn political agita. With all thats happened to that city of musical treasures, how could it not, right? It contributes to her ability to find the touching human vulnerability behind glib political sloganeering. Slogans like, say, We are the 99 percent.
Somewhat contrary to that Occupy sentiment, Which Side Are You On? contains far more singularity (of voice, vision and loneliness) than community, though it certainly longs and sticks up for it. The records first track, Life Boat, may be the records best and most singular. It sounds incredibly alone. Its New Orleans-inspired to its core, particularly in its wonderful lyrics, which conjure Biblical floods and Hurricane Katrina (The cacophony of city lights/Is drowning out the stars; This park bench is a life boat) and the everyday human condition of living in a city with whats essentially post-traumatic stress.
The persona narrative of Life Boat is told through the eyes of a woman living on the streets. Ive got this tired old face/Still grinning most of the time, DiFranco sings in her characters voice. Just cause it dont have a better way/To express whats on its mind. But DiFranco could just as easily be singing in the voice of New Orleans, where insistent life surges up, just under the surface of the water, refusing to drown under lifes deluge of problems. Life Boats watery groove, fuzzy guitar, and chattering background sounds grab your attention before even a word is spoken on Which Side Are You On?. Its exactly what a lead-off track should do.
If Life Boat brings the spectre of water, then DiFrancos adaptation of a Pete Seeger (okay, Florence Reece) song Which Side Are You On? throws fire. DiFranco retools the tune from labor protest song to a broader inventory of the surging leftist politics of today, evoking the cause, or at least the spirit, of the Occupy movement. The rework could be a marching song for the movement (though it probably wont be). But its sure rousing enough. No one can ever fault DiFranco for her apathy or lack of passion. It makes you want to pump a sign in the air, even if youre not at all political.
They stole a few elections/Still we the people won/We voted out corruption and/Big corporations, she sings on the Which Side Are You On? title track in march-friendly meter over martial drums. We voted for an end to war/New direction/We ain’t gonna stop now/Until our job is done. That kind of rabble rousing can be alienating to those apolitical listeners. But its her deeper statements, often uncertain missives or questions, that make a deeper emotional impact on far more listeners. America, who are we?/Now our innocence is gone.
Still, it feels more than a little heavy-handed of DiFranco to make artistic hay out of last years blossoming Occupy movement, which, intended or not, what Which Side Are You On? kind of feels like. But thats her thing, right? Sadly, so is the swing-jazzy Promiscuity, a contemplation of monogamy. Spoiler alert, you guys: DiFranco doesnt like it. It also doesnt help that the lack of uptempo energy in the song kills any momentum the record may have had from its title track and the excellent Splinter, which has a slinky, bossa nova groove with those watery sounds again that sounds like some of the acoustic shuffle on her excellent 2003 record Evolve.
Despite the records ups and down, its hard to deny DiFrancos vision and passion for her craft. Her populist flair has always belied her singular creative vision. Shes the unquestioned dominant force in her music. She holds all the cards. In terms of creative (and business) cache, she is the one percent.
Hell, the owner of Righteous Babe Records has earned it. Shes turned the label and her music into quite the cottage industry over 20-plus years. And DiFrancos never sounded more at peace with love (Hearse, a Zen-like profession of her love in the face of her death) or her life. If youre not getting happier as you get older, then youre fuckin up, she brags with swag behind a dirty-brass New Orleans funk groove on If Yr Not. You go, girl. You get an A+ for heart alone.
Essential Tracks: “Which Side Are You On?”, “Splinter”, and “Life Boat”
Feature artwork by Cap Blackard.