Can you imagine the shock, the outrage, the uproar if your ordinary average music critic walked across the hot coals of No-No Land and took some potshots at punky folkstress Ani DiFranco? Can you fathom the decibels of shrieking disapproval from her legion of devotees when said scribe attempted to dismantle the musician’s Righteous Babe Records, a grass-roots-turned-powerhouse label, as an overrated outlet of mediocre music? Can you feel the fists and feet pounding away at the cowering rock journalist after he made his last and fatal mistake: decreeing that the superwoman is a lousy live act who relies too much on boring banter and should just stick to singing and playing guitar?
To tell you the truth, I can’t imagine any of that, either. (Then again, I’m a tremendous wimp.) Some people are simply born above the bombing. And, in the case of DiFranco, rightfully so.
Over the past eight years, the 28-year-old DiFranco, self-nicknamed “the Li’l Folksinger,” has built up an intimidating following, thanks mainly to an earnest approach to both media and public, an endless supply of witty, heartfelt songs, and 12 albums of ever-morphing material ranging from folk to punk to on her latest effort funk. She is the savviest of businesswomen, someone who can number-crunch and work all the marketing angles and quickly become a millionaire despite MTV’s cold shoulder all without losing her populist eye and gift for stretching the musical rules. Plus, her live shows are pure TNT. Hell, if there were a rock ‘n’ roll writer who decided to lash out at DiFranco with daggers in print, the tiny, twisted folkie would probably let loose one of her chirpy laughs and welcome the challenge. Simply: DiFranco is tough to criticize, and a helluva lot easier to admire.
If you missed 1998’s Little Plastic Castle, then you probably missed DiFranco’s pop phase as well not that the album was all that poppy, just tighter and more structured than her earlier material. On Up Up Up Up Up Up, the Buffalo-born musician is in a jamming mood, with her already-percussive guitar she doesn’t so much strum the instrument as she does pound the ever-lovin’ shit out of it becoming the main focus of this folk-funk experiment. And like a wary mother finally handing over the keys to the minivan to her wild teenage sons, DiFranco, for the first time on a studio release, lets her bandmates take turns running through the spotlight. With its abundance of jazzed-up solos and freaky chatter, Up Up Up Up Up Up is, with a few exceptions, politically vague, as if her lyrics, usually chock-full of social critique, were written more as cool noises than as rebel warnings.
The album’s opener, “‘Tis of Thee,” is the orphan of the 11 tracks, a bitter diatribe about racial inequality set against a tattered Stars and Stripes (“They caught the last poor man/On a poor man’s vacation/They cuffed him and they confiscated his stuff/They dragged his black ass down to the station”). With that protest pitch out of her system, DiFranco gradually gets more and more relaxed, revving up the funk engine with “Virtue,” then breaking the booty-shakin’ speed limit on “Jukebox.” “Angel Food” issues a slinky come-on (and a complete mind-fuck for those still trying to decipher DiFranco’s ambiguous sexuality), backed by Julie Wolf’s flirty organ and Jason Mercer’s upright bass, which create wide-open gaps for the singer’s scatted and scrambled vocals. The first single, “Angry Anymore,” a beefy bluegrass number, acts as a reconciliation letter to her parents.
But if you’re looking for the heart of the album, try out the P-Funk-blessed “Know Now Then” and the closer “Hat Shaped Hat.” The former features DiFranco breaking out the “space phone” and heating up with lyrics such as “I just stood there/Without even a stance/Helpless to her advance/And her retreat/Backspace, delete” the final four syllables peppered with some photon-torpedo blasts and shot through an echo cannon. “Hat Shaped Hat” is Dr. Seuss in an aluminum zoot suit, a 13-minute free-for-all stuffed with jazz clavinet, lowdown bass, looped (and nonsensical) vocals, and somebody named “Goat” on the drum machine that was culled from a three-hour jam. DiFranco usually has a lot of heavy shit to get off her chest (and the next album will probably be a hearty flag-burner), yet it’s nice to know that the Li’l Folksinger is just as adept at getting down as getting serious. And nobody can fault her for that.CP