The most dangerous time in any man’s television-watching career is channel-surfing. Between football and poker lies the most deadly of threats: The Lifetime TV Movie. If met with this fate, you will find a predictable, drawn-out narrative, always ending with male antagonists imprisoned and women hugging through plenty of tears. Ani DiFranco’s latest album, Knuckle Down, plays out in much the same way.
It’s hard to put a label on DiFranco, an independent in the truest sense of the word. Leaving home at the age of 14 and starting her own record company at by 20, Righteous Babe Records, she’s an earnest feminist and self-proclaimed bisexual.
Releasing hundreds of original songs on more than 14 albums and self-pressed tapes, her latest effort is one in a long line of cries from a folk artist gone awry. She has a voice and insists on using it.
An album, however, may not be the right place. DiFranco uses the overwhelming message of the album to discount her limited abilities. Vocal range seems to be the least of her concerns, as her indignant voice leads to lackluster songs.
On the album’s title track, “Knuckle Down,” DiFranco plaintively proclaims, “This is my cowgirl alter-ego riding on her barroom bull / Dripping with the sweat of irony as the cowboys whoop and drool.” The song comes off as a bittersweet lecture and nothing more.
The most notable aspect of this record is the infusion and layering of punk and classical guitar styling. Like the woman herself, the smooth picking and progressions take on an almost violent quality.
On “Lag Time,” furious taps give way to subtle, peaceful harmonics; DiFranco, who has played guitar since the age of nine, knows her way up and down the neck. Accompanied by standing bass and violin, there is a minimalist harmony throughout the album. DiFranco’s estrangement from so-called societal standards turns simplistic melodies into the haunting, almost eerie diatribe “Parameters.”
There is no question that DiFranco is fighting for a noble cause. She believes in her message. Yet, the album is not universally palatable. DiFranco’s rhetoric is something listeners will love or hate even before they hear the music.
There is an audience that will be outraged. There is an audience that will respond well.
Rating: 2.5/5 stars