I build each one of my songs out of glass so you could see me inside them I suppose…
Therein lies the importance of Ani DiFranco. For the last seventeen years, DiFranco has been allowing us consistent and periodic glimpses into her soul, which also happen to double as entertaining and well-crafted songs. Canon marks the first time in those seventeen years that she’s looked back on her career with a retrospective of her best studio tracks spanning two discs. From her self-titled debut album to last year’s Reprieve, our righteous babe has undergone the scrutiny of fans and press alike regarding her private life, collaborated with Prince, stopped playing guitar for a year due to severe tendonitis, saw her adopted home city of New Orleans ravaged by a hurricane and is now a proud mother. All the while, like Paul Anka, Frank Sinatra and Johnny Rotten, she’s done it her way. DiFranco is a shining example of true DIY. I’d compare her to this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame inductees, Cal Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn, who played for the same team throughout their entire career, but the analogy is flawed since neither Cal nor Tony established the team to begin with. Every year, a new Ani DiFranco album is a welcome addition to my music collection, and Canon, being a retrospective, made me remember everything I love about Ani in the first place.
The songs on Canon can be divvied up in any number of ways. On the discs they are presented, somewhat, chronologically, as befits a look back into history. But, for the sake of this review, I’d prefer to look at this compilation as a sum of three parts, studio tracks, live cuts and re-recorded material. Rather than attempt at being `fair’ to her entire studio career by picking equally from each album, Ani truly picks the best of her best. The first disc relies heavily on her strongest period of songcraft and sales, from the exquisite (and my personal favorite), Out of Range to the more instrumentally daring Little Plastic Castle. “You Had Time,” “Shy” and “32 Flavors” are highlights of that particular period, showcasing DiFranco’s strength and vulnerability all at the same time. That kind of songwriting is rare in today’s music market, the idea expressed earlier about her songs being made of glass. Not only does DiFranco lay out her soul for all to see, but she never apologizes for it, and places it in a context of a story song a la Bruce Springsteen. That’s her genius. The second disc relies heavily on her two most recent albums and the double-disc acoustic release, Reveling / Reckoning. The latter marked a return to her indie-folk roots after a pair of fairly unsuccessful `experimental’ albums (Up Up Up Up Up and To the Tooth, with one song on Canon between the two). If Ani’s last two albums, Knuckle Down and Reprieve, are any indication, then Ani still has a lot of magnificent songwriting within her, and music that only gets better over time.
But one can’t discuss the career of Ani DiFranco without touching on her live persona. Ani has such a magnetic stage presence, seeing her live almost seems as if you’re experiencing a different performer altogether, a giggly, effusive, awkward and earnest Hyde to her studio Jekyll. Thankfully, she places four songs from the double live album, Living in Clip on this collection. “Distracted” is an example of the type of banter that would make Flight of the Conchords jealous, as she humorously discusses why Dilate was a departure thematically from her previous angry feminist protest material. (p.s. the answer’s in the title). “Gravel” is one of those aforementioned Springsteen story songs, this one about being obsessed with the absolute wrong person, and she pulls it off wonderfully. “Joyful Girl” is probably the song that says the most by saying the least. The lyrics are direct and forthright, but packed with depth. “Untouchable Face” is still one of my favorite DiFranco songs. I was introduced to her music back in 1996 when Dilate was first released and, as luck would have it, I was involved in a love triangle that mirrored the story in the song. So, there’s a special connection, and I find power in every ironically powerless `fuck you’ during the chorus. The live version presented here has one of Ani’s trademark bouts with the giggles, which softens the tone, but reminds me of how fun her shows can be.
As an added bonus to her fans, and despite some defections over the years they are still legion, Ani re-recorded five popular tracks. I wasn’t sure what to expect coming into this, having been a fan for at least eleven out of the seventeen years, but I should have known better than to doubt Ms. DiFranco. The scathing attack on the record industry, and a friend who signed a major label deal, “Napoleon,” becomes even more caustic with shredding electric guitars and an even more bilious vocal rage. Plus, having the Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli playing the Wurlitzer doesn’t hurt any song, in my opinion. Diametrically opposed to “Napoleon” is “Shameless,” originally from the same album, but this time presented in a dual guitar, acoustic and electric duet played by Ani herself. Out of all of the re-recorded tracks, “Shameless” is probably the closest to the original, but it was difficult to improve upon to begin with. “Your Bold Next Move,” as relevant today as it was when released in early 2001, maybe even more so. I guess grass roots protests never go out of style, and the more things change politically, the more things stay the same, unless, of course, they get worse. “Both Hands” finds Ani reworking a song from her debut, opting for an electric guitar rather than acoustic, adding some rock drums and several instruments that provide a sense of pop slickness to what was once a stark folk ballad. The biggest change comes with “Overlap,” originally from Out of Range. This track is less `re-recorded’ than completely `re-imagined.’ Call it the nu-soul `Corinne Bailey Rae’ version, but I was won over by the time the first chorus came around.
I was introduced to Ms. DiFranco’s music by a secret lover. (Oooooh! How ribald!) As mentioned earlier, it was a passionate and painful love triangle that inevitably ended in heartbreak. Despite the misery of the real life situation, I was won over by Ani DiFranco’s music. I quickly began to do what I do every time I `discover’ an already established artist, I went back and devoured her back catalog. Looking back, I am struck by several thoughts, the first of which is how consistently good she’s been over this time. Unlike most artists who either have high or low points, career destroyers or marvelous comebacks, Ani has remained incredibly reliable. The other thought that comes to mind is that the one thing that has gotten better is the graphic design. She went from black and white photo with crude lettering (making it look kind of like a Black Flag cover) to Grammy-winning package design, and Canon is no different. On one side of the lyric booklet we see the picture of 19-year old Ani, shaved head, sitting backwards on a chair. On the other side, we see 36-year old Ani, in the same position, still as strong and beautiful as ever. In between those two pictures is the extraordinary magic that is Ani DiFranco’s music and lyrics, her extraordinary career and seventeen years of originality.
Joni Mitchell- Hits / Misses
Billy Bragg- Must I Paint You a Picture?
Ani DiFranco- Living in Clip