Latest album finds new beginning in old ground
U. Mass. - Amherst
Fri. April 9, 8:00 p.m.
Call 413-733-2500 for tickets
Providence Civic Center
Sat. April 10, 8:00 p.m.
Call 401-331-2211 for tickets
Ani DiFranco is one of those artists who makes even her long-time fans say, “Huh?” when giving her new CD a spin. You’d think that with eleven other albums and an EP, it would be difficult for an artist to find something new to do or say. Nevertheless, Ani’s newest release, Up Up Up Up Up Up, manages to be unique from her previous work, yet as engaging as anything she’s done.
Ani’s music is often overshadowed by her success story. By age ten, she was playing her guitar regularly in bars, and soon afterwards she was making the rounds at local coffee houses and other open mic events. By age twenty she had put out her first album on Righteous Babe Records, which she founded herself. And now, eight years later, Ani has made a tremendous dent in the music world overall. She has been wooed by and declined offers from countless major labels, received two Grammy nominations, opened for Bob Dylan, toured internationally, and her two most recent albums debuted at #22 and #28 on the Billboard Charts, a tremendous feat for an independent artist. What is perhaps most amazing about her success is that it all came without the help of mainstream radio stations and MTV, based almost solely on the strength of her songs.
Ani has said that she doesn’t really write “albums,” but rather throws a bunch of songs together once she has enough. However, anyone familiar with her work knows that this is untrue, especially with regard to her more recent releases. Each album has a completely different sound and mood, but because of Ani’s prolific output (averaging an album and a half per year), tracking her evolution in style is still possible, and can be a fascinating game. It is fairly easy to follow the growth and maturity that occurred between her first (self-titled) and eighth (Not a Pretty Girl, 1995) albums, but then the path becomes a bit more muddled. Dilate (1996) was full of beautifully intense anger and rage over a relationship; the past didn’t go anywhere (1997), a collaboration between Ani and folk singer/songwriter Utah Phillips, was alternatively gritty and tender, but overtly political; Little Plastic Castle (1998), which brought many new fans but left old ones disappointed, was a bemused, experimental album, featuring a wide palette of sounds, and a generally less belligerent tone.
Where does Up Up Up Up Up Up fit into all of this? The release makes it clear that Dilate, the past didn’t go anywhere, and Little Plastic Castle, were anomalies, testing out divergent paths before returning to the one left off by Not a Pretty Girl. LPC and tpdga, while musically interesting and full of highlights, did not contain Ani’s best work, while Dilate, with its intense, dark passion, did. Still, Up shows that she has grown artistically from these other albums, and can draw from what she has learned and tried.
In general, Up is a simpler group of songs than her previous albums, and somewhat of a return to Ani’s particular brand of folk music. Some of the songs are political once again, on poverty, racism, and the closing of a steel plant. And there are still many songs of a more personal nature, with such themes as a close friend’s drug addiction, and her feelings towards her father. Though it may seem that by taking a few steps back Ani is covering old ground, her style is recognizably different. Fans will miss the manic energy and frenetic guitar-playing of such older songs as “in or out” and “out of range,” but they will find it impossible not to enjoy her generally bluesier, funkier style. Long-time collaborator Andy Stochanksy provides great support on drums and percussion, and the addition of Julie Wolf, who has been touring with Ani for the past year, but makes her first Ani album appearance here on piano and organs, contributes to the unique sound on many of the tracks. Also competently fleshing out the sound is Jason Mercer, first heard on LPC, who beautifully handles the bass line (electric and upright), and plays some great banjo on “angry anymore.”
But kudos go to Ani, who manages to make each song inhabit an entirely different world. Ani shows she’s as comfortable with serene, gorgeous melody and sparse accompaniment (“everest”) as with rockin’ tunes like “jukebox,” with its hypnotic improvised coda that could go on forever. Nor does she doesn’t disappoint with her consistently creative lyrics: “virtue is relative at best/there’s nothing worse than a sunset/when you’re driving due west,” off “virtue,” and the proverbial line, “half of learning how to play/is learning what not to play,” from the title track.
There are surprises throughout the album: the two-minute long vocal intro to “come away,” that one can’t help but compare to the great divas of soul; the effective chromaticism of “know now then;” and the self-duet on “angel food.” Ani abandons traditional verse/chorus/verse/chorus forms in several songs, which culminates in the final track, “hat shaped hat,” a13-minute jam session that some may find indulgent and overlong, but which is winningly fun. Even the first line is satirical of poetry and song lyrics: “in walked a man/in the shape of a man/holding a hat shaped hat.”
Up, although surprising in that it regresses a bit stylistically, is a wonderful new album. Old fans will quickly overcome their confusion to realize that the mastermind behind it is the same Ani we know and love. They may be disappointed with some of her new approaches to songwriting and less intense musical style, viewing the new album as “tame.” But they should be more than satisfied if they are looking for something a little more mellow and groovy. As an introduction to Ani’s music, the new disc is very listener-friendly, highlighting all of her idiosyncrasies: her energy, intelligence, creativity, humor, seriousness, and strong convictions, without going to the extreme and being in-your-face. I recommend it, but as with all great music, understand it will take more than one listen before all of its greatness is apparent.