Wednesday 30 June 2010

Canon (2007) by Ani DiFranco

The singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco has put out seventeen albums in seventeen years, alongside copious EPs and concert releases. In the face of such overwhelming productivity, the problem for anyone coming new to DiFranco's work is simply where to start. With the early folk? The recent electronic experiments? The live recordings? Happily, there’s a very simple answer to the question of where to begin your DiFranco journey: get yourself a copy of her double-disc retrospective Canon and saddle up for a heady introduction to the work of a remarkable artist.

The thirty six songs on Canon trace a broadly chronological path through DiFranco’s career, encompassing tracks from all of her albums, from her self-titled 1990 debut to last year’s Reprieve. (The package also includes newly-recorded, reworked versions of five DiFranco songs.) The press release for the collection emphasises its status as no mere “Best Of”; rather, this is an “album that’s arranged and intended to be played from beginning to end,” one made to DiFranco’s “precise specifications.” Would we expect anything less? After all, DiFranco has long been celebrated as an icon of independence on the music scene, releasing all of her work through her own Righteous Babe label and retaining full control over all aspects of her music. Given the extraordinary amount of material she’s put out in the last seventeen years, the decision of what to include on Canon can’t have been easy, but DiFranco has produced a carefully packaged and extremely well-sequenced collection with a strong sense of track-by-track flow.

The first thing to strike is the wonder of her guitar-playing and her lyrical dexterity. DiFranco’s songs teem with imagery and detail, and she darts around the tunes with an exhilarating speed and momentum. Her rapid, attention-grabbing guitar style is perfectly in sync with her vocal delivery with its funky, almost conversational quality and appealing snap and snarl (surely a formative influence on Alanis Morissette?), and also with her lyrics, which are similarly direct and upfront, full of sharp edges and breathless word-play. Like someone on a caffeine jag, the typical DiFranco song comes at you in a rush, with a hasty, even aggressive urgency, a need to get it all out now. Her music bristles with the brazen, nervous energy of her native New York - brilliantly described in her song "Cradle & All" as “the city that never shuts up” - and feels intrinsically urban with images of fire-escapes, subway trains, “men pissing in doorways,” “trash on the curbs” and “traffic hissing by.”

That’s not to say that she can’t also be introspective and reflective, as on the touching piano-led post-show rumination "You Had Time" and the measured, meditative "Grey." Indeed, at their best, her songs sometimes spark similar shocks of recognition to those of a Mitchell or an Amos. Witness the reference to “last night’s underwear in my back pocket - sure sign of the morning after” in "Cradle & All," or the moment in the sublime "32 Flavors" in which the narrator pauses mid self-eulogy to acknowledge that “there’s many who’ve turned out their porch lights/Just so I would think they were not home/And hid in the dark of their windows/Til I passed and left them alone.” With her poet’s eye for detail, DiFranco builds her songs out of fleet-footed images, vignettes and narrative fragments. Thematically, much of her work takes place at the juncture where the personal and the political intersect. "God’s Country" dramatises an encounter between the Brooklynite narrator and a state-trooper on some lonesome highway. “This may be God’s country but this is my country too/Move over Mr. Holiness, let the little people through” DiFranco sings, leaving it up to the listener to decide whether she’s addressing the Lord, the cop, or both.

"Subdivision" anatomises poverty, homelessness and contemporary manifestations of segregation (“America the beautiful is just one big subdivision”), while "Paradigm" is a complex celebration of the political commitment of her immigrant parents, with DiFranco recalling herself as “just a girl in a room full of women, licking stamps and laughing” and remembering “the feeling of community brewing/of democracy happening.” "Hello Birmingham" explores both civil and abortion rights, and the stunning "Fuel" begins with the discovery of a slave cemetery and goes on to take some well-aimed pot-shots at everything from clueless Presidential candidates to corporate culture. Clearly, DiFranco does not fear didacticism, but her socio-political critiques seldom sound facile or glib. She can be a lot of fun too, and it’s central to her appeal that she can crack you up one moment and make you think about society’s ills the next. Canon gives a full indication of her multi-faceted personality as an artist, as well as a valuable insight into the evolution of her sound and her lyrical concerns. Meanwhile, four judiciously chosen concert cuts - "Distracted" (a spoken-word reflection on the accusation that her work has abandoned politics in favour of safer subject matter), "Gravel" (on which we witness the narrator’s statement “I abhor you” turn into “I adore you”), "Untouchable Face" (a wry “kiss-off to an ex) and "Joyful Girl" - offer a pleasing glimpse into the DiFranco live experience.

There is, it must be admitted, a strong streak of self-consciousness to some of DiFranco’s work, and it’s particularly evident on the spirited but unpleasant "Napoleon," an infamous critique of a friend who signed with a major-label which features a told-you-so coda that can’t avoid a whiff of smug self-righteousness. Alongside "Shameless," "Your Next Bold Move," "Both Hands" and "Overlap" (all solid), "Napoleon" is one of the re-worked tracks which are placed at the end of each disc as an enticement to fans who may otherwise be reluctant to pay out for a collection that probably doesn’t include much material that they don’t already possess. (A DiFranco rarities disc must surely be on the cards at some point.) But while the dearth of new material on Canon means that, aside from the reworked tracks, the collection has less to offer long-time DiFranco-ites, for newcomers to her work this is absolutely the perfect place to begin.


  1. Excellent review, Alex! You're right on about everything here, from Ani's "appealing snap and snarl" vocal delivery to her sometimes (too) self-conscious attitude in her songs and performances. I heard her in concert six or seven times at the height of her popularity in the mid- to late '90s; it's nice to see the live video of "32 Flavors," with drummer Andy Stochansky and bassist Jason Mercer, probably my two favorites of her live supporting players. My favorite Ani songs are mostly from that era as well...I think I own her entire Righteous Babe output on CD, including promotional singles, etc. Here's my own little Ani DiFranco canon, just for fun:

    "You Had Time"
    "32 Flavors"
    "Independence Day"
    "Angry Anymore"
    "As Is"
    "Both Hands"
    "To the Teeth"
    "4th of July"

    I think my favorite of her albums is probably Out of Range (1994).

  2. Excellent choices.

    Have you heard Anais Mitchell's HADESTOWN, on which Ani appears as Persephone, no less? It's a marvellous record (and I know you're keen on song cycles). I'm just finishing a review of it.

  3. I hadn't heard of Anais Mitchell before, so I'll definitely have to check out her record. Thanks for the recommendation, and I'll look forward to reading your review of it!