To understand Ani DiFranco’s 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 past decade or so, and it’s fueled her well-known and well-worn political agita. With all that’s 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%.”
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 for and sticks up for it. The record’s first track, “Life Boat,” may be its best and most singular. It sounds incredibly alone. It’s 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 lifeboat”) and the everyday human condition of living in a city with what’s essentially posttraumatic stress.
The persona narrative of “Life Boat” is told through the eyes of a woman living on the streets. “I’ve got this tired old face/ Still grinning most of the time,” DiFranco sings in her character’s voice. “Just ’cause it don’t have a better way/ To express what’s 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 life’s deluge of problems. “Life Boat” ‘s watery groove, fuzzy guitar and chattering background sounds grab your attention before even a word is spoken on Which Side Are You On? It’s exactly what a leadoff track should do.
If “Life Boat” brings the specter of water, then DiFranco’s adaptation of the Pete Seeger (O.K., Florence Reece) song “Which Side Are You On?” throws fire. DiFranco retools the tune from pro-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 won’t be. But it’s sure rousing enough. No one can ever fault DiFranco for apathy or lack of passion. It makes you want to pump a sign in the air, even if you’re 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 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 the apolitical, but it’s 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’s more than a little heavy-handed of DiFranco to make artistic hay out of last year’s blossoming Occupy movement, which, intended or not, is what Which Side Are You On? feels like. But that’s her thing, right? Sadly, so is the swing-jazzy “Promiscuity,” a contemplation of monogamy. (Spoiler alert: DiFranco doesn’t like it.) It doesn’t help that the song’s lack of up-tempo energy 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 evoke some of the acoustic shuffle on her excellent 2003 record Evolve.
Despite the record’s ups and downs, it’s hard to deny DiFranco’s vision and passion for her craft. Her populist flair has always belied her singular creative vision. She’s the unquestioned dominant force in her music. She holds all the cards. In terms of creative (and business) cachet, she is the 1%.
Hell, the owner of Righteous Babe Records has earned it. She’s turned the label and her music into quite the cottage industry over 20-plus years. And DiFranco’s 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 you’re not getting happier as you get older, then you’re f—in’ 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.
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