Ani DiFranco's reputation as Buffalo's hardest working, perennially
independent and always innovative folk singer is permanently
solidified, thanks to a ceaseless tour schedule (and the release of a
new album a year). DiFranco's career was constructed on a solid tour
routine; her road trips have allowed her to amass cadres of devoted
Explosive, feckless, urbane, Ani DiFranco glows with an onstage
magnetism. She simply shines under the spotlights, even more so than
on record. And fans understand.
So does DiFranco.
Not to generalize, but most artists who release live albums miss the
point. Rarely do such albums accurately capture the essence or the
artistry of a live show; instead they seem derivative. DiFranco,
again, shatters industry standards. Her live albums are visceral
testaments to the intensity of her performances. They do not pander
to fans; they're not simply souvenirs.
Her first live album, 1997's double-disc Living in Clip, was a
revelation. The album humanized DiFranco, capturing wry, witty stage
banter, her sordid stories and, most importantly, puissant versions
of recorded material. Living in Clip altered the world's
perception of DiFranco, and perhaps that was its greatest
achievement. When she was relatively unknown, save for the
coffee-house/college circuit, Living in Clip amazed people,
highlighting DiFranco's riveting performances. Rough around the
edges, the album was underproduced, in a sense. But it was honest.
Since '97, DiFranco has matured, naturally, as a musician, as a
businesswoman, as an artist. She continues to pen provocative lyrics.
She is a peerless writer, a true poet, and she has since released an
impressive batch of four studio albums. Her band, no longer a
stripped-down bass-drums-guitar trio, now includes a proper brass
section. And she continues to amaze onstage.
So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter is very much a companion
album to Living in Clip, but it would be disingenuous of
DiFranco to release an album that failed to account for her expanded
musical horizons. Or, in other words, Living in Clip 2. Yet
So Much Shouting... is in some ways a weaker album.
Missing are the between-the-song quirks. DiFranco is still blithe,
even playful live, but the album fails to capture such moments.
Though DiFranco's band touts its jazz influences, with freeform
instrumentation and an added jam sensibility, the album feels stolid,
rigidly structured, and uninspired in many ways. Living in
Clip was masterful. So Much Shouting... is proficient.
Another quibble: out of the 23 tracks, eight are culled from last
year's opus Revelling/Reckoning, a thoughtful album, but new
nevertheless. To have a similar track listing when DiFranco's oeuvre
is so vast is disappointing. Not to mention that live, many songs
resemble their recorded versions. Interested fans should just check
out Revelling/Reckoning, instead.
There are exceptions, though. DiFranco's commanding singing
her voice seamlessly transmogrifies from whisper to battle cry
rescues "Swan Dive." DiFranco's angst manifests itself in her
staccato, breathless delivery as on the spoken word "Tamburitza
Lingua." "Grey" drips with aching piano, serving as an overwhelming
expression of emotional devastation.
The album's centerpiece, though, does not surface until the middle of
the second disc. "Self Evident," a post-9/11 rumination, has to be
one of DiFranco's most polemical, unbridled poems yet. Horns temper
the backdrop as she rails poetically against the government. Her
eloquence augments her message. It's mesmerizing to listen as
DiFranco rhapsodizes about the devastation of New York City. Chilling
as she recounts past injustices ("Get our government to pull its big
dick out of the sand of someone else's desert/ Put it back in its
pants and quit the hypocritical chants of freedom forever"). And
inspiring, as she dictates her manifesto ("And we hold these truths
to be self evident: #1 George W. Bush is not president/ #2 America is
not a true democracy/ #3 the media is not fooling me").
DiFranco includes two other unreleased songs for good measure, but
their homogenous, largely horn-blasted sound is unremarkable amidst
her more potent material. "Shrug," one of the new songs, is pleasant,
up-tempo pop, but it feels somewhat soulless, and that's not what we
want from DiFranco.
So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter is not a bad album; it's a
portrait of two years on tour. But as with any picture, it is
impossible to capture every grand moment. Living in Clip
heralded a newfound success, catapulting DiFranco into more
mainstream consciousness. This album might make for a storied
closing, hopefully serving to usher in a fresh artistic vision.