Ani Difranco gets a little help from her friends

By |2005-02-10T09:00:00-05:00February 10th, 2005|Uncategorized|

Love takes work. For fans of Ani Difranco, the past 15 years have been evidence that long term relationships are hard. People change, people grow – and not always in the directions we want them to.
For those who fell in love back in 1989 with the 19-year-old bisexual feminist with a guitar, the past couple of years have been rough. While many fans held out hope that Difranco would put out another “Not So Soft,” Difranco has been busy experimenting with jazz and blues and quirky arrangements.
Difranco’s last album was rumored to be a return to her punk/folk roots. Unfortunately, 2004’s “Educated Guess” left many unsure of the question, though pretty sure Difranco’s guess was way off.
For fans who were disappointed with “Educated Guess,” come back into the fold. “Knuckle Down” awaits.
While “Educated Guess” was a totally DIY affair – and had a kind of unhinged hermetic feel to it – “Knuckle Down” finds Difranco playing nice with others. Most notable is co-producer Joe Henry, a master of songwriting in his own right. Henry’s influence grounds Difranco’s work, and the result is her most cohesive and mature record in years.
Not that “Knuckle Down” doesn’t pick up where “Educated Guess” left off in ways. It does, but in a kinder, gentler way. The title track, which opens the album, sounds like a more polished number from “Guess.” According to Difranco, “It sort of got bumped from ‘Educated Guess;’ it didn’t quite take form until just after that record was complete, and it felt like a foreshadowing of the record I was then ready to work on.”
Difranco composed many of the songs with this particular record in mind. As a result “Knuckle Down” is a solid record, not just a collection of Difranco songs. “This time, I had not only a deadline, but a context to write for: the group of musicians that I was gonna work with, and the where, how, and when of the record,” said Difranco. “I knew I wanted to have string accompaniment on this record – I thought I’d get string-y with it rather than get horn-y with it like I have in the past – use those kinds of colors.”
The strings and collaborating musicians add rich layers to “Knuckle Down’s” sound, best illustrated on “Studying Stones,” an album highlight. “I am high above the tree line, sitting cross legged on the ground. When all of the forbidden fruit has fallen and rotted that’s when I’m gonna come down,” she sings.
Another album highlight is “Parameters,” a haunting spoken-word track, illustrating that Difranco is still as literate and poetic as ever. The sparse instrumentation is the perfect backdrop for an account of a woman finding a man in her bedroom who tells her, “Lock your back door, you idiot. However invincible you imagine yourself to be you are wrong.”
With the exception of “Paradigm,” a song that recounts Difranco’s youth spent making Democracy happen with her mother and a group of women in their living room, “Knuckle Down” is oddly non-political in these turbulent times. The bulk of the album is focused inward, reminiscent of 1996’s “Dilate.” However, Difranco’s style has never been to separate the personal from the political. “To me it’s all an expression of a perspective, and things are very rarely exclusively political or personal,” she said. “Whether it’s a personal relationship or a societal dynamic or whatever it is I’m writing about, it’s just an expression of my nature being affected by the world.”
Difranco has managed a highly successful career, amassing a large and loyal following without a single radio hit. In fact, her biggest hit, and most well known song, was a 1998 cover of “32 Flavors” by Alana Davis, a lesser known artist.
Though “Knuckle Down” is one of her most accessible albums to date, it’s not likely to change Difranco’s standing on Top 40 radio. Difranco doesn’t write radio hits. Her songs are heavy on lyrical depth and guitar mastery, but they lack hooks, which could be what has kept her from exploding on the level of an Alanis Morissette or Avril Lavigne, though Difranco’s certainly more talented, more interesting, and has more intelligent things to say.

About the Author:

D'Anne Witkowski
D'Anne Witkowski is a writer living in Michigan with her wife and son. She has been writing about LGBTQ+ politics for nearly two decades. Follow her on Twitter @MamaDWitkowski.