A Righteous Babe

Meritocracy is not a word that leaps to mind when I think about the music biz. Merit, after all, has never counted for much in the face of balls-out profiteering. Which is just one of the reasons I joined the cult of Ani DiFranco about four years ago. In a world of Spice Girls and Hooties, the Buffalo-bred songwriter has made her fame the hard way: without a major-label deal, with only her prodigious talent and dedication.

Those assets are about to pay major dividends. With the release of Living in Clip, a double-live recording that is DiFranco's ninth album in seven years, the 27-year-old songwriter is poised to go where no unsigned artist has ever gone before: multiplatinum superstardom.

DiFranco is no overnight success. She's been writing and performing songs since she was just a nipper up in Buffalo, and touring for ten years. Seven years ago she launched her own label, Righteous Babe. In the years since, she has turned down countless offers from the majors.

The two hours of music compiled on Clip attest both to the power of DiFranco's songwriting and the incandescent quality of her live performances. From the sneering rage of "Napoleon" to the sly self-celebration of "32 Flavors," this record is a long-overdue showcase for DiFranco's supple alto, her slashing fretwork and innovative arrangements.

Given the freedom of an open stage, the diminutive singer reinvents her songs in thrilling fashion. Carefully culling live cuts from more than a year's worth of shows (no small trove, given DiFranco's incessant road schedule), the artist has concentrated on those songs that exemplify the vibrancy and diversity of her vision. "Both Hands" begins with an orchestral movement, courtesy of the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra, a lone piccolo trilling the song line over a wash of strings. This torrent of melody gives way to the stark beauty of DiFranco's voice and guitar, the two eventually merging to create a spellbinding sonic environment.

Of course, DiFranco -- modest to the end -- doesn't see it like that. "You liked 'Both Hands'?" she squeals during a recent phone interview from Milwaukee. "I'm so relieved. I didn't know if it worked at all. I mean, it was amazing working with the symphony. It's like this wall of sound, and when you listen to it you feel this emotional surge. It's involuntarily moving."

The symphony reappears on "Amazing Grace," this time adding somber flourishes to the luxurious, hip-hoppy cover. "Anticipate" spotlights one of the hallmarks of DiFranco's guitar style -- her homemade open tunings -- which allow her to bang out a low-end bass line while picking dizzying arpeggios. The song also features DiFranco's penchant for live tape looping, as snatches of her vocals are layered atop one another. In effect, she harmonizes with herself.

DiFranco's cohorts, drummer and long-time collaborator Andy Stochansky and bassist Sara Lee, provide a solid rhythmic counterpunch to the verbal shenanigans. Most impressive is Stochansky's ability to set down unorthodox, syncopated beats that deftly frame DiFranco's own percussive strums. "Every State Line," an otherwise forgettable country ditty, has been recast as a stark, bluesy epic more along the lines of "Hollis Brown." DiFranco has slowed the tempo, shifted the melody to a menacing minor-key variation, and added squalling harmonica and an echo effect on her sinewy guitar leads. Her live treatment gives an unexpected samba lilt to "Firedoor" and allows DiFranco to launch into one of her bracing spoken-word riffs.

The undisputed classic here is a breathtaking, hip-shaking version of "Slant/The Diner," a melding of two songs that culminates in a pure improv groove. By the end, DiFranco and Stochansky are simply huffing into their mikes, weaving an impossibly chunky beat with their breath alone.

The selection of material seems masterful. But again, DiFranco sounds less certain. "It was kind of a random process. We just recorded shows for about a year and I would pore through and say, 'Oh, San Francisco. Yeah, that was a cool show!' So there wasn't any real method."

The album also includes a good bit of DiFranco's patented patter, enough to indicate why she is adored by her mostly female fans. She is, by turns, saucy, witty, and self-effacing. And fortunately, as producer DiFranco has opted to keep the audience noise to a minimum. A wise move, given that the crowds at DiFranco's shows scream loudly and incessantly.

As it turns out, the attention of her fans has been a decidedly mixed blessing. Because DiFranco's songwriting style is so personal, so confessional, many fans feel more like friends, or confidants. What's more, because it took DiFranco so long to gain widespread notoriety, her fans are extremely protective.

A couple of years ago, for instance, when an MTV film crew showed up at one gig hoping to film the performer, her fans nearly rioted. More recently, as DiFranco has appeared frequently in the mainstream press, and as her songwriting emphasis has shifted from political rants to woebegone love songs, the anger has been turned against DiFranco herself. To those fans who grew to love her as a shaved-head, angry, openly bisexual punk-folkie, her new, less radical incarnation has been greeted as a betrayal.

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