Which Side Are You On?
(Righteous Babe Records)
One wonders what the American protest singer Ani DiFranco was thinking just before releasing her latest album Which Side Are You On?
For more than two decades, the firebrand has musically decried the free market and military interventions long before Occupy Wall Street and Michael Moore made protesting popular.
However, now DiFranco's uncompromising message finds itself - arguably for the first time - in line with the masses. Would such a situation cause her to change her musical approach? Can she still prick ears when targets are already bombarded by a cacophony of righteous anger both from the street and mainstream media?
Which Side Are You On?, named after Pete Seeger's classic union anthem, manages to rise above the noise successfully, precisely because it is not as lyrically full-throttled as her earlier works.
DiFranco's challenge, one faced by all protest singers, is to balance her message with the musical instrumentation; something even the most uncompromising artist must address to get their message across.
Where she can sometimes overwhelm listeners with lyrics straight out of a leftist pamphlet, DiFranco partly continues the relaxed vibe of her wonderful 2008 effort Red Letter Year, which saw her mix more personal narratives with political missives.
The haunting opener Life Boat is a case in point. Where DiFranco could have easily railed against America's poverty - and she has continuously - here she takes on the role of a nameless street urchin who is "raw and frostbitten/from being exposed/I got red scabby hands and purple scabby feet/And you can smell me coming halfway down the street".
She paints this bleak picture so matter-of-factly over shuffling drums and low squalling guitars that it gives the track an abrasiveness she rarely mustered with her most energetic performances.
She continues the stripped-down effort in J, where over a rolling beat and tasteful hand-picked guitars, DiFranco takes aim at the current American president: "And you'd thought we'd come a more far somehow/since the changing of the guard and all/I mean, dude could be FDR right now/And the disappointment is the knockout blow filmed in torturous slow-mo."
Whatever your political persuasion, lyrics with such verve force one to pay attention, which has always been the aim of any DiFranco release.
In the stomping title track, DiFranco performs a souped-up version of Seeger's classic with the folk legend featuring on banjo and backing vocals.
DiFranco does not so much as cover it but, courtesy of her cracking band, brings the old classic to the new century with lyrics tweaked to reflect modern issues, including women's rights and the current economic climate.
But covering such lyrical breadth brings risks, and DiFranco stumbles with a few clunkers among the mix.
Amendment may be built upon some pristine strumming but one scrambles to find any discernible hooks as DiFranco speaks of a bill protecting women's rights; meanwhile, Splinter is too languid - something more fit for the chain coffee shops she is fiercely against.
It is when she looks inward that the album is at its best.
In Albacore and Hearse, DiFranco speaks of finally finding love, expressing as much relief as determination to protect it. In the former, she expresses over a double bass "that when I am next to you, I am more me". In the sombre latter, she is fierce in her devotion, stating she would follow her lover "to the next world like a dog running after a hearse".
Such offerings give us more of a well-rounded picture into one of rock's most iconoclastic characters. While she may not mince her words when it comes to either love or war, DiFranco is still not scared to call it as she sees it, something that is sadly getting lost in today's music world.
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