Folk muses “Side” with DiFranco on new LP

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DiFranco has been making music for two decades, but she shows no signs of losing her musical edge.

By Jackie Connelly, Staff Writer

It’s difficult for today’s singer/songwriter to get away with welcoming you to her latest album using the line “Every time I open my mouth I take off my clothes” without sounding at least a little desperate or slutty.

Fortunately for all the feminist activists, indie-folk lovers and dedicated fans of hers out there, Ani DiFranco is one of few capable of pulling it off. And on “¿Which Side Are You On?,” DiFranco’s first studio album in three years, she does it with class.

Though “Side” was not officially released until earlier this week, I enjoyed a small sample when I saw DiFranco perform at Chicago’s Vic Theatre back in September. I’ll have to admit, the fact that I wept throughout the concert merely because I felt it was a beautiful experience might suggest I’m a little biased when it comes to reviewing her music.

But like 2008’s “Red Letter Year,” produced fresh on the heels of the birth of DiFranco’s first and only daughter, “Side” reveals shades of calm maturity, self-acceptance and grace not easily detectable on the earlier albums that triggered my obsession.

By DiFranco’s own admission, “Promiscuity” is one of “Side’s” efforts to speak back to that younger self. Defining promiscuity as “research and development” and advising “there’s better ways to see the world,” DiFranco serenades us about growing up, being satisfied with monogamy and valuing honesty. Despite plenty of potential for self-righteousness, the song avoids being preachy in a way that is both wise and entertaining.

The optimism of tracks like “Life Boat,” “Unworry” and the charming “Mariachi,” with its upbeat melodic line and use of simple metaphor, also supports DiFranco’s recent efforts to say goodbye to the angry girl whose fans first fell in love with cynical, blunt songs like “Evolve” and “Untouchable Face.”

Despite persistent emphasis on the importance of family and enjoying life’s little pleasures, “Side” still manages to express plenty of the rebellious attitude and politically charged energy that has always kept DiFranco’s fans coming back for more. And its release at the beginning of a presidential election year is certainly no coincidence.

The title track, DiFranco’s own revision of the folk favorite made popular by Pete Seeger 50 years ago, easily steals the spotlight of “Side.” Joined by Seeger himself on the banjo as well as child- and student-based musical ensembles, DiFranco electrifies the classic call to political arms by adding verses condemning consumerism and urging men to support the feminist struggle.

Over a bouncing vocal bass line and eerie chord progressions alternating with a soothing chorus, personal favorite “J” begs for change while addressing government inaction and environmental disaster. DiFranco’s opinion on Obama? “I mean, dude could be FDR right now / And instead he’s just shifting his weight.”

Political consciousness also permeates “Zoo” and “Amendment,” an impressive blend of threatening bass riffs and hopeful guitar sounds that tackles classism, heterosexism and rights of the body. Never one to shy away from controversy, DiFranco puts it simply: “If you don’t like an abortion, don’t have an abortion.”

Repetitive tracks like “Albacore” and “Hearse” fade into my memory with other just-okay songs from past DiFranco albums, and I must admit I find the recurring themes of innocence and babies rather irritating. Granted, I’m not a proud mama, but the tiresome topic fails to carry songs that are otherwise less than impressive.

Of course, it’s fair to assume someone who has released an album nearly every year since 1990 might be hard-pressed to continue both pleasing and surprising fans after more than two decades. And Side’s draw is certainly not as immediately magnetic as personal DiFranco favorites like Out of Range or Knuckle Down.

But it would be difficult to handily top the rich musical history of genius artwork to which DiFranco has dedicated her life. And quite frankly, I don’t know if she’s even capable of producing music that isn’t shockingly direct, break-your-heart raw and somehow clever, relatable and witty all at the same time.

I give it two weeks tops before I’ve added most of “Side” to my somewhat embarrassing mental reservoir of on-hand DiFranco poetry.

Stars: 3 out of 4