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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ani DiFranco: Which Side Are You On?


1) Life Boat; 2) Unworry; 3) ¿Which Side Are You On?; 4) Splinter; 5) Promiscuity; 6) Albacore; 7) J; 8) If YR Not; 9) Hearse; 10) Mariachi; 11) Amendment; 12) Zoo.

A four-year gap in productivity is not something we have come to expect from Ani DiFranco. But kids are kids, and even the icon-est icon of feminism is ironically bound to get stuck with being a mother once she actually becomes a mother — apparently, the long delay was caused by the lady having to dedicate more time to family matters (family? ooh, what a disgustingly obsolete con­cept for the genuinely progressive mind).

The consequences of this are both positive and negative. Positive, because this means more time to flesh out the compositions — for a thoroughly non-genius songwriter, it is a serious advantage, and, although there is not a single song on here that managed to genuinely strike a chord with me, some of the tunes seemed more notable than just about anything off her previous two records. But negative, because the delay seems to have made her lose her biters — or, at least, dull them to the point where I find it hard to believe that even a single intelligent person on Earth would want to be moved by her sociopolitical stance.

Want it or not, Ani DiFranco used to be a poet — good poet, bad poet, innovative poet, banal poet, whatever, the subject is up for discussion. Even when she used to mix liberal preaching with poetry, she usually took care to preserve some sort of balance between the two. But now we have stuff like ʽAmendmentʼ, which begins as follows: "Wouldn't it be nice if we had an amendment to give civil rights to women, to once and for all just really lay it down from a point of view of wo­men..." and goes on more or less the same way for six and a half minutes. ("It's a song that's got a lot of those words in it that are hard to sing", our protagonist says in one of the filmed introduc­tions to her performing the song live, and yeah, I concur: it is fairly hard to put the Communist Party Manifesto to music as well, no matter how much time Friedrich Engels would spend trying to find the right guitar chords to Karl Marx' lyrics).

The saddest thing of all is, she does not even sound convincing when she delivers this stuff — nor when she delivers the «hit of the season» in the guise of the title track, an old chestnut by fellow feminist icon Florence Reece, with a new set of updated lyrics and a ninety-year old Pete Seeger himself accompanying the recording on banjo and backup vocals. It is supposed to be big, power­ful, inspirational, and anthemic, but it sounds a little tired to me; tired, monotonous, and particu­larly ineffective from the point of view of the current situation. The lyrics themselves are caught in contradictions — first admitting that "now there’s folks in Washington that care what’s on our minds", then going off in all directions: Reaganomics, consumerism, poverty, starving Africa, patriarchy, environmentalism, you name the rest.

Risking further curses from the (rapidly decreasing, I am afraid) legions of Ani fans, I would dare to suggest: the fact that these lyrics look ever less and less like poetry and ever more and more like a particularly trivial brand of leftist propaganda must mean that the lady herself is not altoge­ther interested any more. That old flame, which could at least occasionally take on curious sha­pes and reach scorching temperatures, has shrunk to yer good old predictable quiet crackle of a log in the living-room fireplace.

It is even more evident if we consider the simplest rule of this album: the more personal and quiet any particular song is, the less annoying and silly it stands out to the senses. ʽIf Yr Notʼ is built around a technically dark, distorted bluesy riff, but the message is: "If you're not getting happier as you get older, then you're fucking up", and even if she sings it in her trademark «grim» man­ner, there is not so much irony here as stern, solid truth. On ʽLife Boatʼ, she almost seems to be apologizing to her fans: "...and I didn’t really want a baby, and I guess that I had a choice, but I just let it grow inside me, that persistent little voice..." — and the song is not very memorable, but it has a nice ring and attitude to it. And then there is ʽAlbacoreʼ, which is just a simple love song, minimalistic, sweet, and quite hard-to-hate.

Musically, Which Side Are You On is, of course, an ongoing disaster — most of it is acoustic, without a single trace of what an individualistic and even inimitable player Ani used to be a cou­ple of decades ago. But at least there is no more pretending of being a «serious jazz-pop artist»: despite a plethora of backing musicians, most of the backing is either in the background or used primarily for «side effect» purposes (only the title track, in accordance with anthem requirements, is given a near-symphonic arrangement, with a full children's choir and an entire New Orleans student brass band involved). The sound, overall, is quite unpretentious and decent; it's just that there are no interesting melodies. But we have already come to expect that.

What we did not come to expect is this spiritual transformation — one that she herself may not be fully aware of, but, hopefully, as time goes by, things will be getting more and more introspective and less and less concerned with politics. Do not get me wrong: politically-inclined art is a neces­sity of life, and it can be and sometimes is great, but there is no more powder left in this particular keg. You have paid your patriotic dues more than anyone else, Ms. DiFranco — time to pass the baton, listen to your heart, and sing about your family, because, so it seems to me, that seems to be your chief concern these days. Leave the protest songs to the younger generation — people like Pete Seeger, for instance.


Check "Which Side Are You On" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Which Side Are You On" (MP3) on Amazon

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