Ani DiFranco – Revolutionary Love
By Jay Alm
Ani DiFranco – Revolutionary Love
Righteous Babe Records – 29 January 2021
With someone as storied as Ani DiFranco, it’s hard not to drag her history into the listening. The Righteous Babe Records founder and D.I.Y. “littlest folksinger” has been shuffling her punk ethos from native town Buffalo to New York City 1990s coffeehouses and international stages to present-day New Orleans. She has been ardently stabbing and artfully articulating her activist ideology into every demo cassette on route. This offering, inspired by Sikh-American activist/filmmaker/civil rights lawyer/author Valarie Kaur, furthers her track record for progressive advocacy. “A lot of the language in that song comes from Valarie’s book See No Stranger,” says DiFranco, referring to the title track. “It’s about carrying the energy of love and compassion into the center of our social movements and making it the driving force.”
As someone who’s seen her live 8 or 9 times, I can’t fully separate church from state, canon from current-point. Instead, as the album title “Revolutionary Love” suggests, let’s digest the listening as a progression, hear where she rotates to in accordance to where she’s come from. If you’ve driven thousands of miles to see someone like Ani DiFranco sing, it’s worthwhile to investigate the newer meteorites on trajectory. Here goes:
“Revolutionary Love” the opener, is a sexy, unexpected R&B lounge-groove, reminding us yet again of Ani’s versatile prowess and able, instrumental collaborators including mainstay bass player Todd Sickafoose and percussion icon Terence Higgins. Vocally we find her reminiscent of slower-soul Macy Gray or a simpler Erykah Badu. With horn player Matt Douglas (The Mountain Goats, Josh Ritter) rounding out the groove, DiFranco nests in comfortably, lyrically cultivating the garden of her emotions with “I will tend to my anger. I will tend to my grief.” Not so much “Revolutionary” as projected, but certainly soul-sung and gather worthy.
Song 2 “Bad Dream” opens with a drum shuffle and Sickafoose’s plucky upright bass, too mid-range in a sense to be jazzy, yet you could see it somehow in a smoky lounge uptown. Again, New Orleans, the locale DiFranco has called home since 2008 seeps in. It’s softened with age now though. Think easy-flow, rainy day hangover R&B and leave the bombastic brass for the bands at the bigger clubs last night. Mellotron provided by Phil Cook (MegaFaun, Shouting Matches) and a sweet-moving slide guitar guide us through the end of the track into the next sibling segment of the record.
Tracks 3 and 4, “Chloroform” and “Contagious” are jostling partners in crime. Not Yin and Yang per se, but brothers middle-aged and still competing too much for space. They both come in with string intros, “Chloroform” closer to staccato and “Contagious” a little slinkier. The former is gauzy with telephone-esque vocal overdub effects and interesting drum-breaks at points. I have a sneaking little notion that performed live, this song will go over well. “Contagious” is the older, wiser Irish twin here leaving experimentation and wading into full jazz-lounge. If you can’t tell at first, wait for the sensuous saxophone fills and swells. Think Portishead acoustic and Ella Fitzgerald with LeRoi Moore filling in, but it’s happier than all that, much like the songstress herself.
“Do or Die” should be re-named if I dare. How about “Bossanovamerica” or better yet “Bossanova-pocalypse?” Jazz flute included with hush-hush speakeasy admission and Brevan Hampden (Hiss Golden Messenger, Milton Suggs) gives us punctuating, finger-skin conga rolls as well. There are some great Ani lines like, “Now I know you gotta fight your adrenaline just to be a gentleman, and I know I gotta fight my amygdala just to keep hearin’ ya.”
Up next is an unexpected, halfway-helping interlude. “Station Identification” is mostly instrumental except “I have a dream, you have a dream, we should work together.” This is undoubtedly a segue, and it’s one that comes off well-earned with ever-evident bass, counterpoint guitar poses, hand drum run-alongs and a heavy dose of swollen atmospherics. While we’re at halftime, it’s substantial to progress-note DiFranco’s skill at the helm here, sounding almost natural while simultaneously being very experimental on her 20th studio album. And 30 plus years into this, the album could have easily been a greatest-hits re-hash or variant thereof. Instead, DiFranco eschews conventions continuously, even the ones constructed by her previous selves. Sonically, although a departure from earlier works, this is something she has been building towards for a while. See 2006’s “Reprieve” album (specifically the opening “Hypnotized“) or moments on 2014’s “Allergic to Water” for reference. Let’s see where side B takes us…
“Shrinking Violet” is a downright blues tune with a downright good title. Of course, genres are generic and the song itself is too much of its own soup to be classic blues. This is a compliment. Even Buddy Guy thinks the blues is a gumbo. And when the Trucks-esque slide guitar rides through again, it’s clear that DiFranco has her own specific spinning as per usual. Terence Higgins, her longtime drum collaborator and NOLA legend, holds down the background patiently. Ani’s simple builds, bolstered by vocal track multiples, rise ebulliently, and that slide guitar string-singing tastefully ties all the violets together.
“A city of a body, a metropolis of cells. if you listen to it closely, you can hear the ringin’ bells…You can hear the cries of seagulls always so much to say”
“Metropolis” leads us into an echoey chamber and delivers us slowly into the lyrics themselves.
“I’ve been mapping your coastline now for a thousand years. My skin is made of leather, but not as tough as it appears.” More of a cradling than a drop-off. Slow, warm guitar twang tinkers through circular washes of the humblest electronic touches and the song ends with pivot breathing of a quiet saxophone. There remains us sitting at the end of the dock staring out at the smaller and smaller seagulls. If “Revolutionary Love” is the thematic centerpiece, then “Metropolis” is the gold inside the cornucopia.
On Track 9 “Simultaneous,” the first verse is simple and plucky and classic. Contextually she’s talking about two simultaneous worlds, which is really driven home when musically she switches us from acoustic into a beat-driven, flute-included faerie’s nest. The sounds of the hive buzz and thump but just subtly enough to keep it singer-songwriter. Next on “Confluence” The shakers make a metronome to count us in on. Matt Douglas’s flute touches and Sickafoose’s groove-swoons get us to the journey itself. Drop then the chime-like key textures, faint horn allusions, and round out the full pallet of song. Slow and hypnotic, not unlike most of the collection, it still surprises as a second instrumental. On a room stereo, this is filler you take a piss during. But if you lay down and put headphones on, this a good swirl of sound for your day. Could almost be found on a downtempo, lesser-tronic Bonobo or Emancipator album.
The endnote of the album “Crocus,” reminds us that DiFranco’s revolution is in part, often her evolution from the political to the personal. This song, certainly a swing to the “self” songs, leaves its listeners with the comfy “Looks like we made it, made it through something wild,” and reiterates, “When the longest, coldest winter finally let’s go and the first purple crocus pokes out through the snow, all the world can go to hell. If I’m right with you then all is well.”
Despite the “Revolutionary Love” moniker, this activist seems to have found in age, a way to sing flow-form about breezier moments. Even in the feistier instances here, she’s grown into her contentedness vocally. It doesn’t grab you as quickly and gutturally as the early stuff, but it ends up settling better.
The activism will always be there, but her personal revolution now appears to be somewhere in finding later-career serenity. However she arrived at this junction, this point in steering her body of work, she sure has a nice gangster lean on her newfound fuzzy wheel cover. The “littlest folk singer” upstart is more elder stateswoman than righteous babe on this record. She swims through these different musical guises more effortlessly than other contemporaries and does so with whomever she chooses. These are the fruits of a long and soulful career. Luckily for us, we get to reap the good listens.