13 Stories High: An Ani DiFranco Retrospective

13 Stories High An Ani DiFranco Retrospective

 

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After 13 years and 13 albums, including 1993’s Like I Said, a collection of reworked songs from her first two releases, folk troubadour Ani DiFranco has brought her musical evolution full circle. From East Village anti-folk bohemian (1990’s Ani DiFranco) to punk-rock goddess (1995’s Not a Pretty Girl) and jam-band headmistress (2001’s Revelling/Reckoning), her creative arc is at once jerky and seamless: there’s a definitive line between her pre and post-Andy Stochansky days, there’s an obvious difference between the brutal honesty of the 19-year-old whose best friend was her guitar and the seasoned wisdom of a 30-something-year-old revolutionary. But what has remained constant is DiFranco’s undying devotion to the process, as heard on her 13th studio album, Evolve, due March 11th, 2003. To celebrate its release, Slant has revisited DiFranco’s lengthy catalog, excluding two live albums (1997’s riveting Living in Clip and last year’s So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter) and two discs with folk storyteller Utah Phillips.

Ani DiFranco (1990)

DiFranco’s eponymous debut begins with the now-classic “Both Hands,” the unmistakable first chords of which sparked a folk revolution. The song was the first of many to mix human sensuality and sexual politics in what would become typical DiFranco fashion. The folksinger targets sexism and racism on the ominous “Work Your Way Out,” all the while pining poetically for an intentionally ambiguous love interest: “I wonder what you look like under your T-shirt/I wonder what you sound like when you’re not wearing words.” Similarly, tracks like “Rush Hour” helped blur DiFranco’s infamous bisexuality. The then-19-year-old tackled the complexities of abortion with stunning dexterity, referring to “the sterile battlefield that sees only casualties, never heroes” on “Lost Woman Song,” and lashed out against American complacency long before 9/11 on the track “Dog Coffee”: “Freedom and democracy/That’s the word from Washington every day/Put America to sleep with warm milk and a cliché.” DiFranco also brought a warm vulnerability to her often militant feminism on “The Story”: “I am up against the skin of my guitar/In the window of my life/Looking out through the bars/I am sounding out the silence/Avoiding all the words/I’m afraid I’ve said too much…I’m afraid no one has heard me.” Little did she know that her words would go on to inspire an army of followers.

Not So Soft (1991)

Less than a year after her debut, DiFranco emerged quirkier and more caffeinated than ever on Not So Soft. It was still a one-woman show but this time her not-so-softness was blanketed with layered harmonies and several congas. She was as political as ever, tackling AIDS (“On Every Corner”) and the Gulf War (“Roll with It”), but romance—in its various forms—took center stage. Famously combative, DiFranco reveals her passive aggressive nature on “Make Me Stay” and even hints at the discrepancy between her public and personal personas on the track “Itch”: “I’ve mapped out my course…It’s just hard to travel in the shadow of regret/It’s so hard that I actually haven’t left yet.” For the first time, the folksinger also references her burgeoning grassroots fame on “The Next Big Thing,” attacking the music industry’s image-driven commodification of art. But, in the end, Not So Soft has a much softer impact than DiFranco’s debut.

Imperfectly (1992)

With her third studio release, Imperfectly, DiFranco had begun to perfect her craft. DiFranco added a healthy dose of humor to her oft-heady compositions and, with the addition of drummer Andy Stochansky on tracks like “Make Them Apologize,” the singer’s arrangements became even more fleshed out. Her lyrics were as political and witty as ever on songs like “Good, Bad, Ugly” and the mandolin-hued “Fixing Her Hair,” in which she compares a girlfriend to America, “suffering through slow reform.” She takes on sexual and social constructs on the song “In or Out” and acknowledges her near-certifiable insolence on “What If No One’s Watching”: “I always feel I have to open my mouth/And every time I do I offend someone somewhere.” But, in the end, she dispels her ever-angsty image on the fan-favorite “I’m No Heroine”: “I just write about what I should have done/I sing what I wish I could say/And I hope somewhere/Some woman hears my music/And it helps her through her day.” Indeed, Imperfectly helped solidify DiFranco’s legion of female fans and, with the aid of tracks like the poignant “Served Faithfully,” exposed even more of the singer’s multifaceted public personality.

Puddle Dive (1993)

The lil’-folksinger-who-could took on a twangier twist on Puddle Dive, her fourth album in as many years. Most of the album recounts DiFranco’s cross-country touring life, from a junkyard in Iowa where she befriends a 7-year old trailerpark boy (“4th of July”) to power struggles on the bar-gig circuit (“Egos Like Hairdos”). Opening track “Names and Dates and Times” and the jazzy “Back Around” focus on the singer’s flighty memory and distinctive on-the-go lifestyle: “I never really go anywhere anyway/I just pass through from time to time.” As ever, DiFranco blurs personal and political lines on tracks like the sinewy “Willing to Fight” and “God’s Country,” but it’s her famous ball-busting feminism that takes center stage on Puddle Dive. “Blood in the Boardroom” is at first another anti-industry harangue until, of course, she wonders, “Can these boys smell me bleeding through my underwear?” She goes on to lament her feminine power: “These businessmen got the money, they got the instruments of death/But I can make life, I can make breath.” And even as she fine-tunes her politics, DiFranco continues to evolve musically as well. Many of the album’s beefier arrangements (percussion, accordions and harmonicas abound) make the acoustic simplicity of songs like “Anyday” even more emotionally potent. Puddle Dive is Ani anti-folk at its finest.

Like I Said (1993)

With Like I Said, DiFranco revisited (and recorded) songs from her first two albums, adding layers of warm harmonies and personal experience to some of her favorite early tracks. Most of the arrangements are more fully fleshed out, uniting the folksinger’s distinct voice and guitar-work with Brazilian, Irish and African drums, as well as more conventional instruments like bagpipes, accordion and cello. The spoken word piece “Not So Soft” pulsates with new life here. DiFranco seems at once humble and ambitious: “I always wanted to be commander in chief of my one-woman army/But I can envision the mediocrity of my finest hour.” Trumpets and military march-style drums give “Roll With It” an added punch, while piano (an instrument DiFranco has always underused) gives “Out of Habit” a playful feel. Potentially forgotten gems are breathed new life on the album; long before Jill Sobule kissed a girl, DiFranco’s “The Whole Night” poetically explored feminine intimacy (“We can hold hands like paper dolls/We can try each other on/In the privacy within New York City’s walls”). Similarly, 1990’s stunning “Rush Hour” is given an ominous violin treatment befitting DiFranco’s intense words: “There were certain things he did not need to know/There were some days that I did not love him.” Like I Said offers superior versions of old Ani classics and finds DiFranco more comfortable in her skin than ever before.

Out of Range (1994)

On the tails of Like I Said, DiFranco continued her musical (r)evolution with 1994’s Out of Range. The album traced the Buffalo native’s ongoing progression from folksinger to folk-punk goddess, adding brawn to her acoustic guitar-driven arrangements by way of long-time drummer Andy Stochansky and several other musicians. The track “How Have You Been,” which features trumpet, sax and trombone, finds DiFranco reveling in the muscle of a full band for the first time in her career. The singer had also honed her lyrical talents, conjuring vivid imagery on tracks like “The Diner,” and proving herself a consummate observer on a series of exquisite folk-ballads. She pines softly on “Overlap” and “Falling Is Like This,” in which she sings wryly, “You give me that look that like laughing/With liquid in your mouth/Like you’re choosing between choking and spitting it all out.” DiFranco explores her ever-evolving relationship with her fans on songs like “Letter to a John” and the heart-wrenching “You Had Time”: “You’ll say did they love you or what/I’ll say they love what I do/The only one who really loves me is you.” The title tracks appears in two incarnations, one of which is a relatively disappointing first attempt at plugging in (it would be a couple of years before the electric splendor of “Napoleon”). But displaying a wisdom beyond her 23 years and a voice softer and more controlled than before, Out of Range was a gigantic creative leap forward for DiFranco.

Not a Pretty Girl (1995)

Admittedly introverted in real life, the prolific DiFranco communicates via song and, as she says in her song “This Bouquet”: “Got a garden of songs/Where I grow all my thoughts…Maybe it’s okay that I am speechless/Cuz I picked you this bouquet.” The song is one of only a few tracks on her seventh album, Not a Pretty Girl, that remain faithful to DiFranco’s folk roots. The album all but abandons her rootsy past—it’s as if folk was simply a vehicle to her final destination. While it’s essentially a one-woman show (DiFranco plays every instrument on every track, accompanied only by drummer Andy Stochansky), the album was, at the time, the folksinger’s most mainstream effort. Yet DiFranco was as subversive as ever, challenging capital punishment on the dark “Crime For Crime” and the media on the title track: “Every time I say something they find hard to hear/They chalk it up to my anger and never to their own fear.” “The Million You Never Made” is an angry “fuck you” to those in the industry who hoped to milk the cash cow, while “Light Of Some Kind” finds DiFranco still grappling with bisexuality and social boundaries (“I still think of you as my boyfriend…Maybe you should follow my example/And go meet yourself a really nice girl”). Not only is Not a Pretty Girl DiFranco’s most cohesive studio release to date, it might also be one of the most emotionally powerful albums of all time.

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