This is my love letter to all the queer musicians out there, making art and kicking ass. If there's an artist you think I should know about, please let me know, I love new music! (I also reblog/post on general queer and trans stuff, radical news, and instances when the world is fucked, and when it isn't!)
I think it’s safe to say at this point that the Ani many of us grew up on and love dearly (the self-titled/Out of Range/Dilate Ani) is dead and buried. We probably should have figured this out by Reprieve, her 2006 album, but with her latest, ¿Which Side Are You On?, set to be released January 17, that notion is firmly cemented.
It’s been three years since her last album, 2008’s Red Letter Year, which I enjoyed, but many Ani fans weren’t too big on, I think mostly because she just seemed so happy and content, and it shone through on almost all of the tracks, regardless of their individual mood and lyrical content. ¿Which Side Are You On? also feels like that. Many of the tracks, like “Splinter” and “Unworry” meander merrily along seemingly without point and with no build to any sort of real emotion. They’re like the song equivalent of a content sigh, it’s a feeling yes, but not much of one.
Most of the songs sound like they could have come from her last two albums, Red Letter Year and Reprieve, and this probably has to do with the fact that most of the backing musicians came from those two records. Todd Sickafoose in particular has a very distinct bass style that really helped create the incredible haunting atmosphere of Reprieve, but here sounds a bit aimless. It’s still very good work, but it somehow feels disconnected from the rest of the songs that he’s utilized on, especially when he’s playing stand up bass. “Albacore” is this close to getting to that almost disturbed place that was on Reprieve, but the parts just don’t mesh well in the end, and it sounds like two or three different songs trying to be played at once.
That’s not to say there isn’t brilliant stuff to be found on this album, especially on its second half, which is exponentially better than the first. “J” and “If Yr Not” actually make good on the promise of a build up. “If Yr Not” in particular seems pretty simple on first listen, but about halfway through these killer horns come in like a punch in the gut, along with almost booming drums. And it works just so well that it ends up emphasizing the weakness of a lot of the other tracks. “Hearse” and “Mariachi” sound like vintage Ani, and in the end are the best songs on the album, not because they sound like they could be on one of her earlier records (although the guitar work on “Mariachi” alone makes me want to cry tears of joy), but because they create a specific mood actually set a real, concrete feeling in your chest, which is ultimately, what most of the songs really fail to do.
On that note, I need to address the title track, and the centerpiece of the album (although it’s the third track), “¿Which Side Are You On?” It is Ani’s take on the Florence Reece song made popular by Pete Seeger (who, by the way, plays the opening banjo line, and THAT’S AMAZING) and the Almanac Singers. The original was about supporting unions and banding against employers to fight for rights and wages. Ani’s version is very much a modern take, and very in tune with Occupy Wall Street and the popular 99% sentiment. It’s boldly political and in your face, but not overly harsh. It feels like she is trying to take a page from Seeger’s book and bring people together through music and art for populist causes that benefit the ordinary person. And it’s mostly successful. Obviously, Pete Seeger, she is not, and the song is over six minutes long, jumping through a lot of topics with no real focus other than “these are issues you probably care about, which side are you on?” A little editing would have done wonders and really brought the song into focus with a very clear message. I admire Ani for the effort, but overall it’s reflective of this album as a whole: very close to getting it right, but a little too long, and a little too hazy to be truly effective and excellent.
When it comes down to it, I think I want to like ¿Which Side Are You On? a lot more than I actually do. Make no mistake, there are some truly outstanding songs (“Mariachi” may be one of my favorite songs of her’s ever), but it also contains at least one of her worst (the dated and overly long “Amendment.” “Lost Woman Song” is much more poignant and made the same point twenty years ago, through a more focused lens). Honestly, I just expected more after three years. If you’ve enjoyed Ani’s albums over the past ten years or so, then this is definitely worth the buy; there are at least a few songs that you will really really like that make up for the less stellar tracks. But I think it’s safe to say a lot of the young fire is gone, and we have to learn to live with a happy, mature Ani DiFranco.
Make sure if you purchase the record it’s through Righteous Babe, or at an Ani show. Purchasing an album through the artist is still the best and easiest way to make sure the most of your money goes right back to them.