By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Up Up Up Up Up Up
There's a tendency in the rock press to revere Ani DiFranco for all the things that merely surround her music: the self-contained record label, the is-she-or-ain't-she-queer? thing that obsesses her fans, the voice-of-a-new-generation hype that crops up whenever someone straps on an acoustic guitar and starts singing about poor black folk and the Big Bad Record Industry and falling in love in a world of hate blah blah blah. She's an icon even to those who've only heard of her.
But when you get right down to it, DiFranco ain't much of a brand-new thing: She's Joni Mitchell, Suzanne Vega, Natalie Merchant, Billy Bragg, Bruce S., Bobby D. all at once, a bastard child of folk-rock's finer moments--or just Alanis Morissette with all the crap removed. She's musically adventurous enough to avoid being forever labeled a folkie--Up Up Up Up Up Up's covered in tons of accordion-organ-banjo dust, funked up enough so that the newcomer might accidentally mistake her for funky--but deep down, the woman's got A Point To Make, dang it. So it's not enough for her to stick to the politics of the heart (her strong suit by far, which makes her a rather ordinary songwriter by most standards). She has to begin Up Up Up Up Up Up by singing on "'Tis of Thee" about "the last poor man on a poor man's vacation" who gets popped by the cops; the boys in blue then drag the poor man's "black ass down to the station" and justify their actions by proclaiming they've made the streets safe for all of God's children.
Hell, all us good liberals need a singer-songwriter we can get behind every now and then, but "'Tis of Thee" is just so damned obvious. She's preaching to those who preach to the converted; guarantee you anyone buying this record already knows Racism Is Bad. Or Unemployment Happens To Good People: In "Trickle Down" a small town is devastated by the layoffs at the steel plant, and the images are too familiar ("This town is not the kind of place / That money people go") and dated ("The president assured us / It was all gonna trickle down") to make much of an impact. DiFranco's influences apparently include 1984 issues of Time.
Not that the record's a washout: Half the time the music's interesting enough to render the lyrics mute...or moot. And DiFranco's warble is beginning to take on jazz-blues hues. But just when you become engulfed in the boozy, woozy music emanating from the speakers, DiFranco throws out one of them deep-and-meaningful aphorisms: "God's work isn't done by God / It's done by people." Is she writing songs or bumper stickers?