¿Which Side Are You On?
January 17, 2011
Righteous Babe Records
She said it herself: “After having written hundreds of songs over decades, I think, ‘Now what? How far can I go with this? Can you sing the word ‘abortion,’ can you sing the word ‘patriarchy’ – what can you sing and get away with? I guess I’ve been pushing my own boundaries of politics and art. Seeing what people have the ears to listen to. How big is my mouth? What can I get out of it successfully?”
¿Which Side Are You On? tests these boundaries, but it’s nothing that listeners aren’t willing to ride along with, aren’t willing to push and pull at just as they have for the last twenty years as the folksy fingerpicker has wrestled with the sweet synthesis of artful expression and political conviction. Coming off a three year hiatus and an influential move to New Orleans, DiFranco offers a fresh yet familiar collection featuring 11 new songs and one hot-blooded remake of Pete Seeger’s remake of Florence Reese’s protest anthem “Which Side Are You On?”
Personally, I prefer albums that will allow me to listen from beginning to end – not necessarily a concept album, but one that builds, that leads me, that carries me through a musical space and creates a new experience, maybe even with every listen. Knowing that about me, let me say: this one moves me. ¿Which Side Are You On? is consistently smooth and melodic, and the almost hypnotic rhythm of “Life Boat” and “Unworry” is only somewhat interrupted by the power of the title song before things settle back down, before the somber reflection in “Life Boat” resumes in “Albacore.” Though it’s the tattoo needle that metaphorically says I Do, this otherwise classic love song is easy to love. The lyrics are neither demanding nor profound but they are real. She’s no “blushing girl,” but then again, neither am I. We can both tap our feet just the same and feel the same comfort in knowing that “When I am next to you, I am more me.”
“J” picks up the pace a bit and even digs a little at President Obama (“I mean dude could be FDR right now and instead he’s just shifting his weight.”) and “If yr Not” goes electric to proclaim ultimately (repeatedly) “If you’re not getting happier as you’re getting older / then you’re fucking up,” before the album slows back down with the very poignant “Hearse” and “Mariachi.” I could listen to these two songs on an endless Ani loop and never fall out of love—with anything—but maybe that’s just me. Add the vulnerable “Zoo” to the loop and bring me back to reality as the singer admits her own imperfections (“I walk past my own self-loathing like I walk past animals in the zoo /try not to really see them in prison they didn’t choose”). After a few ups and downs we are emotionally and melodically prepared for the big finish with “Promiscuity,” which gives a serious sound to a lighthearted metaphor, and “Amendment,” an impassioned rally cry for a woman’s right to choose.
As with all good albums, there’s more to ¿What Side Are You On? than politics, than emotion, than witty rhymes, than good ol’ fingerpickin’. There’s all of that and then some as New Orleans brass, the Neville Brothers, and Pete Seeger each weigh in to give the album a fullness, rounding out the authentic sound we’ve come to expect from such a raw, gritty, tell-it-like-it-is lyricist. Neither Ani DiFranco nor ¿What Side Are You On? dares to disappoint.