On Our Side

Ani DiFranco marching in DC for Women’s Lives in 2004. Her new album is entitled Which Side Are You On?

I love Ani DiFranco’s commanding version of Pete Seeger’s classic, “¿Which Side Are You On?” Her vocal is strident and scolding, hopeful and demanding. With each verse, she raises important questions, and insists that we, at least, think about the answers. The backup voices, percussion and increasing distortion suggests a dark revolutionary march; she’s in front of the angry crowd, instructing, inciting, leading the charge. She’s terrific.

She’s provocative when she sings about “Promiscuity,” offering a cool lyrical analysis with “promiscuity is nothing more than traveling, there’s more than one way to see the world.” She’s fully exposed on “Life Boat,” a song about a failed mom’s sadness and self-image featuring “red scabby hands” and “purple scabby feet.” She’s political and forceful when she proposes an “Amendment” to provide civil rights to women, a good song that promotes the “right to civil union with equal rights and equal protection, intolerance finally ruined.”

This is Ani DiFranco’s ambitious, righteous, significant side. She is a songwriter and a performer who thinks, and isn’t at all afraid to tell us what she thinks and why.

Then, there’s the other side, the side that confuses me, the writer who takes the easy way out, as on “Zoo,” where we’re treated to “I can no longer watch TV cuz that shit really melts my brain…” and “I go to do my food shopping and all I can see is packaging and a mountain of garbage about to be happening…” Sure, every record’s got its B-sides, but DiFranco’s good work is so strong, I wince when I hear work I wish she had done better. Moreso because her lyrics are both interesting to the ear and smart enough to be worth reading. And, even moreso because her songs quickly become old friends, worthy of replays for weeks on end. The more I listen, the more I like what I hear.

But I do keep coming back to the Seeger song. He plays some banjo at the start of it, but it’s Ani DiFranco’s power that electrifies the song and its meaning. And it’s that song that anchors this album, a nod from one authentic performer to another. Wouldn’t it be fun to hear her perform an album filled with Seeger songs, a female counter to Bruce Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, or maybe, even better, an album exposing lesser-knowns who took sides in their time: Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, maybe Joan Baez, too.

Buy the album directly from the artist’s Righteous Babe label.

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