February 10, 2005

Ani Difranco: Knuckle Down

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The first time I listened to Ani DiFranco’s Knuckle Down, I clearly had done it the wrong way. At the end, I wasn’t able to tell the difference between the album’s twelve tracks — it was as if the same song had played over and over again. The music was satisfying, of course, with nice memories of Bela Fleck’s banjo and Bob Dylan’s storytelling coming to mind but I had missed the point.

It took me awhile to realize that it wasn’t the music, as catchy as it might have been, that continues to draw people to this legend. Rather, it was her personality, spunk and lyrics, that made Ani DiFranco one of the better singer/songwriters out there.

DiFranco’s lyrics demand the listener’s full attention. It’s no wonder she included the libretto as the only liner notes, because the only way to really appreciate Knuckle Down is to read the lyrics as she sings them.

Apparently, friends told me Ani DiFranco carries the stigma of a feminist man-hater. If that’s true, I certainly didn’t hear it. Most of the songs are actually odes to anonymous people, male, female or sometimes even rooted in fantasy.

“I want to take a long, cool drink from your bucket / To every thought I could think now, I say fuck it” is a great couplet from “Seeing Eye Dog” that paraphrases the attitude and admiration, prominent in many tracks. Another category is characterized by self-deprecation: “I’d already started to feel callous / Like I really should care more.”

Some other songs are nostalgic, about parents who dreamed of democracy, and yet others are about being on the verge of something great, “Strewn with half written songs / Taking one breath at a time.” There’s a lot of emotion packed in these songs and DiFranco sings them all with a sotto voce that can be both delicate and angry at the same time. DiFranco’s voice is a perfect compliment to the gritty, cowgirl persona she attempts to rectify in Knuckle Down. The songwriter is clearly a storyteller at heart — you could easily imagine her singing around a campfire in the desert, even though DiFranco has gotten more used to venues like Carnegie Hall in recent years.

Some songs are told as myths in the form of a desperate plea, such as “Parameters.” Others can be best described as a half-scat, half-sung balance with a melody hidden somewhere in between. Such is the conclusion incited by the title track, but you still get the feeling she made it all up on the spot. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the album is the implication of continuous originality. DiFranco gives you the impression that she never performs a song the same way twice. There will always be that tightly-strung guitar strumming chords, maybe a little bass and drums.

However, because each track seems to allow us an intimate look at who this legendary songwriter really is, to allow every song to become standardized would cheapen the feeling of that specific point in time. And if one thing is clear about Knuckle Down, it’s that Ani DiFranco would never want you to think every action, no matter how small, doesn’t have intense emotional ramifications.

3 1/2 Stars

Archived article by Elliot Singer
Sun Staff Writer