DiFranco returns with same energy, simple lyrics

By Hannah Amante

After a four-year hiatus, folk rock singer-songwriter Ani
DiFranco released her seventeenth studio album “Which Side Are You
On?” on Jan. 17.

Known for blending the blatantly political and poetic, her
diverse instrumental style, and her refusal to conform, the
feminist icon presents a slightly watered-down version of her
previous work.

The title of the album is a tribute to the 1931 protest song by
Florence Reece, whose husband was a union organizer for United Mine
Workers of Kentucky.

“I’m testing deeper waters with the political songs on this
album,” DiFranco said on her website.

But DiFranco’s fiery energy seems to have slowed down. The
result is an album split between almost sentimental ballads
reflecting on love, motherhood and getting older, and moderately
angry rallying cries for change.

The organic quality of her music is still noteworthy, as she
continues a 23-year-long career under her own record label,
Righteous Babe.

Though her guitar riffs are simple, DiFranco’s distinctive
plucking style still teases the listener into unexpected rhythms
and harmonies.

As usual, a welcome dash of funk and jazz floats seamlessly into
the folk mood, along with a touch of lo-fi electronica on several
tracks.

The album also features an assorted lineup of guest musicians
from the bands of such mainstream artists as Norah Jones and Pearl
Jam.

The best track on the album is unfortunately the first one,
“Life Boat,” a relaxing song whose intimate guitar melody echoes
the feel of rocking in a boat.

The lyrics showcase DiFranco at her most vulnerable without
bordering on cheesy, the way some later tracks do.

“Every time I open my mouth,” she sings, “I take off my clothes
/ And I’m raw and frostbitten / From being exposed.”

An energetic and upbeat title track immediately follows, and
here DiFranco’s brazen activism shines with her revamping of the
protest song, inserting lyrics more relevant to our times.

“30 years of diggin’/ Got us in this hole / The curse of
Reaganomics / Has finally taken its toll.”

Several critics have already lauded this song as being one of
the few central to the Occupy movement.

Pete Seeger, who popularized the original song in 1967,
accompanies DiFranco with a banjo and backing vocals. This
full-band song is the strongest and most effective instrumentally
and features The Rivertown Kids, a Hudson Valley-based children’s
chorus, and The

Roots of Music Marching Crusaders, a brass band made up of students
from The Roots of Music, a music education program for at-risk
middle school students in New Orleans.

“If Yr Not,” featuring a lone electric guitar, is a direct
response to former fans who see DiFranco’s settling happily into
marriage and a family as a betrayal to her girl-power image.

“Promiscuity,” perhaps the most metaphorically clever, is not
only the defiant argument of a woman who values her sexual
independence, but also a call to be open-minded, to be
introspective about one’s morals rather than adhere to traditional
conventions.

With “J” and “Splinter,” she crams in a variety of political
issues that strike an all-too-familiar chord with anyone following
the news today: environmentalism, feminism, workers’ rights, the
dangers of unchecked capitalism, the war.

The more personal love songs include “Mariachi,” “Hearse” and
“Albacore,” a song in which she coos, “I’m no blushing girl, no
innocent dove / It took me a long time to find love / But now I
have no doubt and I never will / That I am meant to be loving
you.”

Some longtime fans will be disappointed by a noticeable lack of
complexity or wittiness in DiFranco’s newest lyrics, while others
will just be glad to hear her voice again, a voice that still
stands out among musicians of the folk rock genre today.

New listeners will find something refreshing about her choice to
remain straightforward about issues many contemporary artists shy
away from (the political unrest of these times notwithstanding),
while still injecting a dose of tenderness that lovebirds can
relate

to.

Rating: 3.5/5

Which Side Are You On?

Courtesy Righteous Babe Records

Which Side Are You On?

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