CD Review of Canon by Ani DiFranco
Recommended if you like
Liz Phair, Michelle Shocked,
Billy Bragg
Label
Righteous Babe Records
Ani DiFranco: Canon

Reviewed by Greg M. Schwartz

F
or casual fans who don’t own most or any of Ani DiFranco’s albums, Canon provides a convenient compilation of what DiFranco considers her best stuff (as an artist known for her independence from the music industry, it’s no surprise to learn that DiFranco hand-picked each track here.) Diehards may also be interested to learn that the set has five “brand-spanking-new studio versions” of “Napoleon,” “Shameless,” “Your Next Bold Move,” “Both Hands” and “Overlap.”

The accompanying booklet contains all the song lyrics, although it does not offer any commentary from DiFranco, who seems content to let the music do the talking. But as an artist famed for deep thoughts and not being afraid to speak out against the powers that be, DiFranco’s songs do have a lot to say on their own. The songs are tracked in roughly chronological order, with disc one focused on the ‘90s and disc two on DiFranco’s output in the new millennium.

DiFranco distinguished herself from the pack in the mid-‘90s when she combined ace acoustic guitar playing with introspective and socially conscious lyrics that were far from the norm of the times. In “Cradle & All” from 1995’s Not a Pretty Girl, she sings of moving to New York City from Buffalo, “But that’s nothing / The Trico plant moved to Mexico / Left my uncle standing out in the cold / Said here’s your last paycheck / Have fun growing old.” The song also features a short but smoking jam, rare for a primarily acoustic artist.

“32 Flavors,” from the same album, is here as well. DiFranco’s closest thing to a breakout hit, it’s still considered a fan favorite by many. With lyrics such as “God help you if you are an ugly girl / ‘Course, too pretty is also your doom / Cuz everyone harbors a secret hatred/ For the prettiest girl in the room,” DiFranco spoke to a wide audience. DiFranco has also faced some occasional career backlash similar to that of Bob Dylan in the mid-‘60s, for sometimes straying toward more personal output. But as a musician who has always placed her muse above commercial considerations, DiFranco stands out as a musical role model in this regard.

Canon also features several live tracks, such as “Gravel,” from 1997’s Living in Clip, which demonstrate DiFranco’s ability to stretch songs out live with a band behind her.

The new recording of “Napoleon,” originally from 1996’s Dilate, is a real standout track, presented here in a full electric band format that gives the song a dynamic presence.

Disc Two includes some of DiFranco’s most subversive commentary and shows her mettle as one of the most substantive songwriters of her generation; with tunes like “Sub-Division,” from 2002’s Reckoning, featuring lyrics such as “So we’re led by denial like lambs to the slaughter / Serving empires of style and carbonated sugar water / And the old farm road’s a four-lane that leads to the mall / And our dreams are all guillotines waiting to fall.” “Paradigm,” from 2005’s Knuckle Down, also features some deep thoughts, with DiFranco singing lyrics such as “Teach myself to be new in an instant / Like the truth is accessible at any time / Teach myself it’s never really one or the other / There’s a paradox in every paradigm.”

DiFranco delivers a moving commentary on “Millennium Theater,” from 2006’s Reprieve, with brilliant rhymes such as “Halliburton, Enron / Chief justices for sale / Yucca mountain goddesses / Their tears they form a trail / Trickle down pollution / Patriarchies realign / While the ice caps melt / And New Orleans bides her time.” The progressive theme continues on the 2007 remake of 2002’s “Your Next Bold Move,” in which DiFranco offers a little history lesson with lines such as “Coming of age during the plague of Reagan and Bush / Watching capitalism gun down democracy” and “Yes, the left wing was broken long ago / By the slingshot of COINTELPRO.” For fans who aren’t familiar with Uncle Sam’s counter-intelligence program to monitor the left in the 1970s, such a lesson could be instructive.

The mind boggles at what the potential effects could be if mainstream pop artists sang such lyrics. But then they probably wouldn’t be mainstream, and therein lies the dilemma for artists like DiFranco. For those who prefer music that follows the heart and mind above blatantly commercial aspirations, Canon offers a compelling guide.

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