Ani DiFranco: Swing
ASSOCIATE ARTS EDITOR
Righteous Babe Records
Unlike most other artists who release singles and EPs regularly in order to accompany their radio play, Ani DiFranco has only released three EPs during her prolific ten-year career. The first two of these, More Joy, Less Shame (RBR 1996) and Little Plastic Castle Remixes (RBR 1999), each feature one live track and several creative remixes of songs from her albums Dilate and Little Plastic Castle. “Remixes” is somewhat of a misnomer, however, as many of these tracks are actually thorough reworkings of the original songs with new music and vocals.
Swing, DiFranco’s latest EP, concentrates less on remixes and focuses on live songs instead. Although she occasionally performs cover songs, from Prince’s “When Doves Cry” to Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” during live shows, she had never released a cover song on one of her albums or EPs prior to Swing (although she did contribute a memorable rendition of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Wishin’ and Hopin’” for the opening credits of My Best Friend’s Wedding). The three covers included on Swing highlight DiFranco’s folk roots as she pays homage to three of the greats: Woody Guthrie on “Do Re Me,” Phil Ochs on “When I’m Gone,” and Bob Dylan on “Hurricane.” On each of the three tracks DiFranco keeps the song’s integrity and purpose intact, but still adds her own distinct style and personality.
It’s difficult to choose a favorite among the three covers. The first, “Do Re Me,” has appeared in a slightly different form on DiFranco’s side project, ’Til We Outnumber ’Em, a Woody Guthrie tribute album featuring a wide variety of artists including Bruce Springsteen, Arlo Guthrie, and the Indigo Girls. DiFranco’s version of “Do Re Me” was a regular on the two week long tour last March where the artist shared the stage with two other songwriters, Gillian Welch and Greg Brown, and two of their accompanists, David Rawlings and Bo Ramsey. The track is powerful and driving in its commentary on the overimportance of money, and it features the typical frenetic guitar that can be found on DiFranco’s previous albums, as well as some fantastic guitar solos and backup vocals from her guest accompanists.
The next track, “When I’m Gone,” was recorded for the soundtrack of Steal This Movie!, a film biography of Abbie Hoffman, a famous political activist of the 1960’s and a contemporary of Phil Ochs. DiFranco’s version is a gorgeous take on Ochs’s simple but powerful song on responsibility, and she mulls over each line with a quiet musing that is intense and stunning.
The third cover, Bob Dylan’s epic song “Hurricane,” was recorded with DiFranco’s full band and was originally intended for the soundtrack to the 1999 film The Hurricane. The story concerns racial injustice in America, a subject DiFranco has explored in previous songs. Unlike Dylan’s fairly straightforward version, DiFranco ups the tempo and adds a funk and soul sound to her usual “thrash folk” sound (much as she did on her most recent album, To the Teeth). DiFranco sustains the seven minute long narrative with rhythmic and gritty vocals that skillfully navigate the slew of trailing rhymes, and with an increasingly disillusioned attitude which culminates in the powerful lines: “to see him obviously framed/couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed/to live in a land where justice is a game.”
Rounding out the rest of the EP are two songs off of To the Teeth. The title track, “Swing,” is a raucous, freeform song, and one of the highlights of To the Teeth. The song features the groovin’ saxophone expertise of funk-master Maceo Parker. In addition, the EP includes a remix of “To the Teeth” which, despite rather trite gun shot sounds during the first minute, is a valid new version of the socially conscious song about gun control. The song, unfortunately, is one of DiFranco’s least effective due to its muddled point of view and oversimplified finger-pointing; a far better addition to the EP would have been “Hello Birmingham,” a piece from To The Teeth which addresses abortion. Despite this one shortcoming, Swing is a great release from Ani DiFranco and something to hold fans over until her next album and tour (she will be appearing at the Orpheum Theater in Boston on October 26 and 27).