ANI DIFRANCO: KNUCKLE DOWN (2005)
1) Knuckle Down; 2) Studying Stones; 3) Manhole; 4) Sunday Morning; 5) Modulation; 6) Seeing Eye Dog; 7) Lag Time; 8) Parameters; 9) Callous; 10) Paradigm; 11) Minerva; 12) Recoil.
For some reason, Ani has reverted back to writing songs instead of creating them, if you get my meaning. Formally, the only change is that she has amply shared production duties with fellow singer-songwriter Joe Henry, and that a bunch of new hands are guesting on the album, not the least among them violin maestro Andrew Bird in person. Informally, this is simply her best effort since... let's see... gosh, how far do we have to scroll up?... since Up Up Up Up Up, definitely, or even since Dilate, not so definitely.
For one thing, it is hard to remember the last time she recorded something as tender and poignant as 'Studying Stones' — not only are the lyrics, advertising restraint and calm, suggesting that she may be trying to exorcise the deamon of cheap social activism, but she sings it real pretty, and meshes well with Bird's trademark morose violin part. Then, a few steps down the block comes 'Modulation', combining a steady rhythm, a gloomy production, and a catchy vocal melody — and a mention of death to boot. For the record, she almost never mentioned death before — in fact, it is rather hard to imagine a more life-oriented singer-songwriter than DiFranco. Coincidentally — or not? — in between Educated Guess and this record, she did suffer the demise of her father, and this may be the explanation between quite a few humane and moving twists that you will encounter on Knuckle Down.
Of course, there is still the obligatory piece of spoken poetry to sit through ('Parameters'), but even that one is possible to forgive, since (a) it is set to a slightly hypnotizing piece of mind-blowing ambient sonics, sort of a cross between Brian Eno and Lou Reed, and (b) it is not politically oriented. Also, as usual, this is a long record, and, sooner or later, the expected amorphous acoustic patches of deep-sounding nothing start to accumulate and gnaw on the brain. But everything is spread out quite evenly, and it does make sense to sit through the whole thing since the very last track, 'Recoil', is the third best on the album. Slide guitars and violins rule the day, and at the very end, she admits that "I'm just sitting here in this sty, strewn with half written songs, taking one breath at a time — nothing much going on". Ten years at least have we been waiting for this sort of confession; how ironic that she actually pronounces it within one of her few songs that is, by contrast, written to near-perfection.
Some have expressly called Knuckle Down one of her most accessible records, and, no doubt, some of the more fanatical activists would even brand it a folk-pop sellout after the brave soul-baring that were Evolve and Educated Guess. Well, I'll bite: I prefer to have my soul-baring coupled with an interesting riff or chorus, and I'll take the «accessible» DiFranco over the «inaccessible» DiFranco (or, rather, over the «pathetically boring» DiFranco, since there is really nothing particularly «inaccessible» about her «inaccessible» records) any time of day.
On a sidenote, I happened to come across an interesting conference talk title the other day. The session was American Studies, the speaker was, of course, a lady (student), and the title was: «Why Do Men Hate Ani DiFranco? The Connection Between Women Rock Musicians and the Image of Feminism». This made me wonder, so I Googled «I hate Ani DiFranco» — and, what do you know, it looks like there is hardly what you could call a correlation between masculine sex and hatred for Ani DiFranco. (Of course, I could also mention that the absolute majority of male posters hate Ani DiFranco because she is boring and obnoxious, not because she has any connection to the image of feminism, but then we all know they're lying, don't we? Men hate Ani DiFranco because she is a woman. Women hate Ani DiFranco because... uh, because she is bisexual. Or because she got pregnant. Or something like that. Nobody hates anybody because their music is shitty. That'd be so uncool).
Anyway, I do not hate Ani DiFranco, but I do hate the fact that for every good record, she puts out three piles of nasal acoustic wasteland. Knuckle Down is a fairly good one, though. Thumbs up, for a change.