By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Up Up Up Up Up Up
Calling Ani Difranco's music gawky and overemotive is like criticizing the Ramones for constantly playing the same three chords. The limitations of her technique are a deliberate aesthetic choice. DiFranco overtly works to propel the conventions of confessional songwriting to their most embarrassing, icky extreme, to prove that a thing worth saying is worth saying as foolishly as possible. It helps get the point across.
True to form, she sabotages Up Up Up's opening tirade against the war on the poor with knee-jerk potshots at "talk-show TV" and jibes at middle-class stereotypes of "the Cleavers and the Bradys," only to recover a song later with the pissy, pithy line "Virtue is relative at best/There's nothing worse than a sunset/When you're driving due west." That accomplished, she sets to work silencing concerns about her technique's efficacy with the anti-drug song "Come Away From It," which is precisely as gawky and overemotive as a wake-up call to an addict should be.
But as a perceptive student of the mass media she disparages, DiFranco is suitably wary of slipping into self-parody, and she's savvy enough to know that by your 13th album even hard-line fans expect some feint toward maturity. So, on the title track, she sings of "learning [that] the spaces she leaves/Have their own things to say," while striving to "make music like mercy [that] has nothing to prove." The insight of this ars poetica hardly curtails her verbosity, but it does encourage her to sing with a newfound restraint that diverts some attention from the lyrics.
More important, it encourages her to put as much care into her music as the illusion of spontaneity requires. Gone are the pasted-on horn intrusions that 1998's Little Plastic Castle offered as a pop move. In their place is a steady three-piece combo that receptively fills in the rhythmic stagger DiFranco once sketched with her own acoustic guitar. The sprung, jittery funk of "Jukebox" reconfigures the Gang of Four as loose-limbed post-folk, while the organ dub of "Know Now Then" is as disorienting as Tricky at his most claustrophobic.
But it's on the album-closer, "Hat Shaped Hat," a 12-minute assortment of repeated and discarded riffs, changeable beats, and call-and-response melodies, that the interaction between musicians triumphs. It's enough to make a folk fan believe that collective minimalism can sound as daring as personal self-expression, even if DiFranco still has her doubts.