Ani DiFranco has resolved to ignore the media chatter that surrounds her public persona. Systematically denied rotation on commercial radio, the folk-punk poetess has spent nine years exercising her creative independence with a discography 12 albums deep and a sizable loyal fan base virtually built by word-of-mouth alone. Once again, DiFranco presents her self-issued license to say what she wants to say exactly how she wants to say it on Up Up Up Up Up Up.
As always, DiFranco's artistic strength lies in her ability to communicate a point, be it political or personal. The third-person narration "'Tis of Thee" paints the dim reality of societal issues of race and class, in which individuals at the poverty level are victimized in order to divert the public's attention from fundamental, core issues of education, employment, and housing. "My country 'tis of thee/ To take swings at each other on talk show TV," she sings. "Everest" aligns the political with the personal, embracing racial, gender, and class distinction: "So I take a few steps back and put on a wider lens/ And it changes your skin, your sex, and what you're wearing/ Distance shows your silhouette to be a lot like mine/ Like atmosphere is a sphere and all of us here/ Have been here all the time."
In contrast to last year's Little Plastic Castle, Up Up Up Up Up Up, recorded only a few months later, has a toned-down, less-in-your-face feel. The live players (bassist Jason Mercer, drummer Andy Stochansky, and keyboardist/accordion player/backing singer Julie Wolf) figure prominently in the mix, collectively broadening the musical landscape from DiFranco's earlier solo-girl-with-her-guitar efforts. The result marks DiFranco's move into an artistic maturation phase, both in her lyrical poetry and the musical form against which it is presented. "Angry Anymore" shows the dissolve of self-righteousness in favor of acceptance of human difference of emotion: "We can learn like the trees/ How to bend/ How to sway." It's the same Ani, but different -- she's become less like a teenage girl's best friend, and more like her guru.
-- Melissa Piazza
Chuck E. Weiss
Chuck E. Weiss has a past. During the '60s he played with Lightnin' Hopkins, Willie Dixon, and Muddy Waters. In the '70s, he palled around with Dr. John, Tom Waits, and Rickie Lee Jones (thus, "Chuck E.'s in Love"). Now he's Johnny Depp's partner in Los Angeles' Viper Room, but this begs the question: Is he any good?
Very, and Extremely Cool, in part produced by Waits and almost completely written by Weiss, is the evidence -- though one feels compelled to apologize for the inevitable comparisons to the Tom-cat.
It's easy to understand the pair's blood-brotherly love the minute Weiss opens his mouth. The funereal, N'awlins groove of "Deeply Sorry" might even have you thinking it's Waits himself; "It Rains on Me," a co-write with Waits, has spare acoustic guitar paired with a truly unusual thumping drum, over which Tom adds vocals. "Sonny Could Lick All Them Cats," a jazz riff and rant on boxer Sonny Liston, is set up like Waits' "Step Right Up." But so what -- Waits never had the blues this bad. And anyway, he's given up that gutter-guise to clang on pipes and stuff.
From the opening burst of shotgun slide guitar on "Devil With Blue Suede Shoes," Extremely Cool is a fairly bumpy ride down the lost highway, though experienced musicians, including guitarist Tony Gilkyson, form the band. "Just Don't Care" is another ambling riff, this time playing off Memphis soul. And "Roll on Jordan," a shout-out to jump blues bandleader Louis, is cut very cleverly to sound like an old 78.
The album's main showpiece, "Do You know What I Idi Amin," is a Ubangi stomp through stupid tongue twisters and poetry, until a Hammond and distorted guitar attempt to cut through the jungle drums and repetitive Tom and Chuck verse for over five minutes plus. "Rocking in the Kibbutz Room," another rambler, is a tribute to Cantor's Deli, a return favor to the infamous Fairfax Avenue coffee shop in L.A. where a booth is named for Weiss.
The gentle Cajun "Oh Marcy" is atypical -- and early on it crushes the mood that's been set for the journey through the heart of devil music. Maybe there are two or three too many songs, and the album art ain't doing anybody any favors, but I'll take worldly Weiss' version of down and dirty over the icy slickness of blues-rock cuties Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd any day. Do you know what I Idi Amin?
-- Denise Sullivan