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[whitespace] Ani DiFranco More Than Righteous

Ani DiFranco doesn't have anything to prove anymore

By Louise Brooks
Photograph by Scot Fisher

VIEWED FROM ALMOST any angle, there's something to admire about Ani DiFranco (who performs a sold-out show tonight at the Civic Auditorium), the folk-singing hero of the indie world. For those who don't love her music or her brutal, lyrical honesty, there's her old school, leftist politics. For those who don't dig her politics, there's the fact that she's a woman who has fulfilled the "up-by-your-bootstraps" American ideal of self-reliance.

Unwilling to relinquish artistic control of her name and her music, DiFranco formed her own Righteous Babe Records label at the tender age of 19. The company has released all her work and has since grown to include a touring company, a management company and a Righteous Babe Foundation dedicated to supporting grassroots political work. The label has also grown beyond Ani's music to release the work of storyteller Utah Phillips, spoken-word artist Sekou Sundiata and other experimental and deeply funky artists.

And Ani's subversion of the corporate stranglehold on the music industry isn't just image; a do-it-yourself business woman who commands about $2 more royalties per record than established entertainers such as Michael Jackson has gotta have some brains and, well, "balls."

Ultimately, though, this much-touted, trailblazing-businesswoman aspect of Ani is just a logical offshoot of what is most admirable about her: the unflinching honesty in her music. In our scary times of Spice Girls-style, slickly packaged "girl-power" sentiment, Ani is the real deal.

In her prolific career (15 albums in 10 years) she has sung to us about her life, managing to find some sense of virtue and beauty in all of her experiences: wrecked love, the act of singing, strange motel rooms, riding the F train in New York.

As feminist-treatise-sounding as some of her songs seem ("I am not a pretty girl/that is not what I do"), Ani always manages to deliver more than just politics. With her eye for life's details, and her honesty about what she has done, said and felt, we realize that, ultimately, she is really just singing about herself. She is trying to decide what she should and shouldn't find valuable in herself and in others, and examining how far she can follow these values (pretty damn far is always the answer). In the context of our society, this reach for self-knowledge is inherently political.

Quiet Moods

ALL THIS BEING SAID, it is sad to discover that her new album, the double-CD Revelling/Reckoning, is depressing. Her quiet work on earlier albums (like 1994's Out of Range) is captivating and leaves the listener digging around in a beautiful world of meaningful sadness. Revelling/ Reckoning, however, is full of slow, ambling melancholy that just leaves the listener tired.

The Revelling disc has the heavy presence of horns and, Ani has said, is about her "revelling in the act of playing music" (a couple dirgelike tracks make you wonder about her idea of revelling).

Reckoning is slower and more of just Ani with her guitar, meandering through songs in which she reckons with her personal life and the faulty world outside of herself. Both albums suffer from a lack of the dynamic tension present in much of her earlier work--the building and falling, the skittering, stuttering, snarling and laughing. Here Ani seems to just let some words slide out, and then wanders away.

Revelling relies on the horns for drive and a fuller sound. The horns, however, fail to create their own soundscape of strong jazz. Instead, they add a "jazzy" element to liven up Ani's voice. The resulting smart, perky backdrop does not lend itself to the deep melancholy feeling in Ani's voice, except in a few instances toward the end of the disc. Climbing scales, beginning to shriek a bit, the horns finally start testing out their range. But for the most part, their uninspired echoings of Ani's refrains sounds like something you might hear playing at Mervyn's.

Clearly, Ani has changed her musical style. She is still, however, making music that, at least lyrically, tackles the hardest, most emotional aspects of her life--for instance, her new marriage. Married life, she says in recent interviews, is "kicking her ass." She sings on the new album with candor about the difficulties, joys and sadnesses of committed love, and ends up suggesting a reason for the change in her style: "i took to the stage/with my outrage/in the bad old days/when you were the make-me-mad-guy/but the songs/they come out more slowly/now that i am the bad guy."

Ani DiFranco doesn't have as much to prove these days. There's no more need for Not a Pretty Girl's gleefully self-righteous screams at record execs: "You're looking at the million that you never made!" You can bet that record executives are fully aware of Ani's success.

For this new phase in her career, Ani digs into herself in more isolated, less heroic ways. Her fans can only trust that she will soon figure out how to bring together this solitary introspection with the strong musicality they've come to expect. And her hard work over the past decade has earned from her fans this kind of respect and trust.

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From the July 4-11, 2001, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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