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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Artist: Ani DiFranco
Label: Righteous Babe Music
Length: 12 tracks, 57.33 minutes
I missed the first 17 (or so) Ani DiFranco albums from the past 13 years. Not surprising, since her fierce dedication to independence in never signing to a major label and launching her own “Righteous Babe Music” has meant air-play, distribution and promotion in the southern hemisphere was somewhat limited. However, I did know her name and a couple of her songs from college radio, and associated her with the genre of hard-edged, feminist, political, acoustic guitar-whipping lesbian musicians (Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge etc.) In other words, great gutsy music, if that’s your thing.
Upon finally obtaining a full album of DiFranco’s music, namely her latest release Evolve, I was expecting an onslaught of angry punk-folk. However, what met my ears can best be described as jazz served on a plate of folk, with a side of Latin. These twelve songs immediately grabbed my ears and shook something in my soul. I realized that this album is the reason most music on the radio sounds so flaccid and impotent. Unshackled from producers looking to score another top-ten hit, DiFranco is prolific and explorative; a free spirit roaming her musical terrain like a wild-woman, seeking the goddess within. I’m left wondering if my CD collection has been missing something all these years, and that something is Ani DiFranco.
The cumulative effect of Evolve is like a glorious punch in the gut. Alternately sounding like Billie Holiday sucking on helium then plumbing the same vocal depths that the first lady of jazz often achieved, DiFranco’s subtle, playful voice intertwines with the horn section, Hammond organ, bass and percussion of her latest backing band and her raw, sometimes frantic guitar picking style, to create tunes reminiscent of a hybrid of the Buena Vista Social Club and Violent Femmes.
Evolve radiates a deep sexiness and earthy spirituality. Thematically, the songs swing between exorcising the demons of her relationships (“Promised Land,” “In the Way,” “Slide,” “Oh My My,” “Shrug”) and extrapolating on her social conscience. Brash, funny, opinionated and explicit, DiFranco walks a spiritual path of great integrity, while clearly at odds with that of traditional Christianity.
Your tiny little life gets even smallerWhile a progressive Christian would perhaps not see a problem with such an outlook, religious fundamentalists should run for cover. DiFranco shows no mercy to such views, especially when they are practiced at State level.
They are locking our sons and our daughters in cagesThe album undergoes an evolution of its own as the funk of “In the way.” “Slide” and the title track give way to more mellow, sparse songs. The atmosphere of coolness doesn't dissipate however, even as the penultimate track plays - the stunning, lyrically dense, maudlin 10-minute epic “Serpentine” - leaving me breathless as much as it does Ani. The interconnected thoughts on politics, love and the music industry say so much that it is almost impossible to hold together all the nuances of this song in a single listen.
The music industry Mafia is pimping girl powerI wonder if Ani perhaps walked away from a fundamentalist Christian upbringing a long time ago to find her own path. In any case, things of the spirit are clearly implicit in her musical mandate. Make what you will of this statement from her web site, for example:
“Once you understand yourself to be connected to all other living things, and the earth beneath your feet, you respond to the oppression of people and the destruction of the environment by governments by taking it personally. It is the latter half of this equation that I am developing as I journey into adulthood and therefore into a position of responsibility and/or accountability to human society. It is an equation that always adds up to one, however. The personal and the political are of one realm; to separate them is artificial.” (http://righteousbabe.com/ani/evolve/evolve_interview.asp)
As a Christian, I have no problem with that philosophy. And now that Ani DiFranco has warmed my soul with hers through this outstanding album, I’m thinking I might go and track down her 1996 album _Dilate_ which has the other song of hers that I know, “Untouchable Face” and (surprisingly) a version of “Amazing Grace” on it. While the music is heaven sent enough, I suspect that this righteous babe has more to say about God than she might initially let on.
Brendan Boughen 4/21/2003