Questioningly

The other day, I was leafing through the latest Righteous Babe catalog, unable to settle on either the white ribbed tank (also known as a wife beater, but this is Ani DiFranco we're talking about here) labeled "righteous," or on the black spaghetti-strap top marked "babe." It's a real dilemma: Do I want to embrace my own self-righteousness, or make like a preteen at Hot Skates daring the eyes of the pubescent hotties?

Luckily, with Ani DiFranco, you don't really have to choose. Her latest release, a two-disc feat entitled Revelling/Reckoning, is as well-versed in glee as it is in fighting the good fight.

Like many a 13-year-old girl in 1996, I came to Ani through "fuck you"-ing along with "Untouchable Face" on Dilate. That album's absence of napkin-scrawled manifestas made DiFranco's core fan base "get their panties all in a twist," as she put it in a midconcert soliloquy on Living in Clipa year later. In reality, while Dilatedidn't find her clamoring against the death penalty or even getting her period in the white corporate boardroom, DiFranco was turning out apolitical, lovelorn gems like "Shy" and "Fire Door" long before she crowned herself a joyful girl. Besides, radio-friendly though it may have been, the catchiest songs on Dilatewere still too impudent and too strategically doused with sauce to ever make it into the buzz bin, or whatever it was called back then.

“Why me? Why this now? Why this way?”
photo: Ebet Roberts
“Why me? Why this now? Why this way?”

What is it that sets DiFranco apart from your average guitar-slinging chick chirping Lilith Fair anthems? It could be simple talent, though that alone never whisked anyone off the indie throne and into the suburban armchair. Maybe it's that she's transcended the caption to which she's invariably reduced: the DIY political folk dyke turned uppity entrepreneurial cunt rocker. She'll mull over growing up while capitalism gunned down democracy, cry on the shoulder of the road, and then plop down beside you to chatter about this crazy fucker who made a sculpture out of butter.

Her recent act at Carnegie Hall, besides being an exercise in cultural disparity (think combat boots blithely swinging over filigreed balconies), was evidence of just how much Ani's appeal has broadened. The requisite crowd was still there in full regalia—girls in Superman tops with "not a pretty girl" inked robustly on their back jean pockets, girls in horn-rimmed glasses and bandannas and braids, girls making out in the back, girls pretending they weren't with their mothers—now joined by almost a parity of scraggly indie boys and reedy intellectuals, plus a smattering of adult contemporaries nodding their heads and, when they got up the courage, emitting stray, cautious whoops. All of them wanted in on the phenomenon.

It's only fitting, then, that Revellingand Reckoningrepresent, respectively, an instrumental romp and a new emotional maturity. Never one to limit herself to mere dichotomies of merriment versus What's Really Important, DiFranco's experimental jamborees are socially conscious, and there's as much musing on her marital woes in the swelling elegies as there are leftist laments.

On Revelling, she figures out how to flirt with funk and soul without pissing off folk and rock, and even pulls off a potentially dubious but ultimately delicious kazoo ditty, not to mention the drum-flecked spoken-word gamble of "Tamburitza Lingua." (Or maybe I just like songs that have the word patriarchal in them.) While the acoustic simplicity of Reckoningseems thin at first, particularly beside Revelling's sensual, bombastic joy, the croons and ballads grow on you, if not for their melancholy navel-gazing, then for their languid, old-school folksiness.

Vintage Ani is homespun, rough-edged, tied to her expressive whinny. Here, she twists her pipes into snarls, murmurs, giggles, and howls, ranging from the triumphant cackle that rings out at the end of the roistering, frolicsome boogie of "Ain't That the Way" to the hyperactive cluck-cluck of "What How When Where (Why Who)."

True to tireless form, DiFranco recently announced that she's planning to follow up R/Rwith a live album and film, both culled from her current tour. Best of all, there's an entertaining rumor that she'll pair up with Jackie Chan for a Nat King Cole cover. There's a price to putting all of body and soul into her work, of course; her voice is showing the strain, and she would probably make better music if she ate the bread of idleness for a while and temporarily jettisoned the restless diligence that has become her trademark.

This time around, Ani isn't "in such a rush/to ensure my autonomy," as she admits in "Whatall Is Nice." She's tried to convince us before that she's no heroine, but her very modesty only nourished the superwoman myth—she was still Mr. DiFranco to you, rocking her ideology on a perpetual road trip punctuated by accidental encounters and soul-searching quotables. Having just left behind both her twenties and her hyperbolic gallantry, Ani riddles both new discs with questions rather than answers. "I guess I've only got three simple things to say," she reflects on "Grey." "Why me? Why this now? Why this way?"

For starters, because she can bend a mighty band to her will as easily as she can make herself fill the entire universe. It doesn't matter in the least that her brilliance is largely jagged and uneven, or that her relentless self-analysis and introspection can occasionally be as tiresome as, well, a teenager's. Just watch her spew maledictions about the new "asshole at the helm" (of our country, that is), urge young women to join the feminist battle, and then turn her constituents into shrieking teenybopper pulp with a single slamming chord. You'll understand.

Cursed with consciousness, Ani asks yet another rueful question: "How sick of me/must you be/by now?" Actually, not at all. And by the way, can I get that, um, ribbed tank in a small?

 
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