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Ani DiFranco - Which Side Are You On?

Released by Righteous Babe Records, January 17, 2012

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating

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Ani DiFranco - Which Side Are You On?

Ani DiFranco - Which Side Are You On?

© Righteous Babe, 2012
Twenty-one albums into her quite remarkable career, Ani DiFranco seems to have struck a balance. Her 2012 release Which Side Are You On? is equal parts personal and political, understated and intense, envelope-pushing and strikingly content. In fact, one of the disc's most memorable and infectious refrains sees DiFranco repeating the word "balance", before offering a toast to "staying connected to everything" (purchase/download).

"Getting Political" Again?

Contrary to the way many of her fans might remember her career, it took six tracks for Ani DiFranco to "get political" on her debut album back in 1991. The singer-songwriter most often conflated with 21st Century feminism - who has a tendency to politicize everything - has always sandwiched her politics between a couple heavy doses of the shockingly personal. Indeed, that first record started with a story of a somewhat whispered affair ("...and when we leave the landlord will come and paint over it all").

There were several other assertions of desire on that disc before she went for it, leaning heavily into what just might be one of the most blatant pro-choice songs of her generation...until, of course, she tacked a tune called "Amendment" onto Which Side Are You On?:

If you don't like abortion, don't have an abortion.
Teach your children how they can avoid them...
but don't treat all women like they are your children.
Compassion has many faces, many names.
If men can kill and be decorated instead of blamed,
then a woman called upon to mother can choose to refrain.

(purchase/download)

That she found the wherewithal and creativity to turn "abortion" into a singable word is probably not so surprising, considering. But, elsewhere on the album, she tackles racism, homophobia, drug companies, marriage rights, promiscuity's taboo, even death. All this under the moniker of one of the most provocative and stirring labor anthems of the 20th Century, even while giving plenty of time and lyrical love to her husband and child. Quite a feat for 12 songs which clock in at just under an hour total.

It Takes a Community

Unlike the 20 albums which came before it, Which Side took three years to record and release, allowing for a number of collaborations and guest appearances. In addition to a couple of Neville Brothers and members of New Orleans brass bands Rebirth and Bonerama, a chorus of local children, and her producer/husband Mike Napolitano, Pete Seeger came along to play banjo on the title track.

Some attention should be given to that tune, indeed. Aside from the traditional "Amazing Grace" (which DiFranco re-arranged and recorded for her 1996 album Dilate), she has yet to feed any old folk songs through the folk process (changing lyrics for changing times) and put them on her albums. "Which Side Are You On?" (purchase/download) is the first, and she completely reconstructed its verses to apply to modern concerns. The tune draws hard lines where politicians are probably hesitant to do so, ultimately calling for voter turnout and general engagement/participation in democracy ("Come on all good workers! Let's all vote this time! / Tell 'em which side are you on now, which side are you on?").

That there happens to be a major nationwide people's movement happening around DiFranco's release of the album is purely coincidental, but the disc is likely to fill the hole so many critics have been pointing to, asking where OCCUPY's anthem is. The answer may just be here.

(Check out this history of the song "Which Side Are You On?")

The Bottom Line

Next to Reveling/Reckoning and Red Letter Year, this is easily one of DiFranco's most fully-realized albums. Long-time fans will eat this one up. Newcomers may need to be a little patient and give it several spins before it starts to resonate. As usual, the aesthetic isn't immediately what many traditionalists would call "folk music," but the sentiment is entirely the same. We can only hope DiFranco keeps delivering from this place of balance, as it is certainly illuminating.
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