Ani Di Franco “Binary” (Righteous Babe/Aveline Records, 2017)

A new album from American Folk Rocker and Feminist Icon Ani Di Franco has to be cause for celebration, not least because she is one of the most creative songwriters out there and her music always engages and informs. This lastest release “Binary” is right up there with some of her best work. Written in the run up to the American Presidential election of 2016 it is very much of its time, with songs addressing the importance of reproductive rights (Play God), the need for empathy (Terrifying Sight) and the value of non violent protest and opposition (Pacifist’s Lament) – all themes currently playing out both in America and in the wider world. Di Franco’s work has always contained  a healthy amount of political awareness and is all the better for it. 

The theme of this album and of the title song, Binary, is that nothing exists in isolation – that everything needs a relationship to something else in order to make it real. It’s a strong and very relevant statement and it has formed the structure of a powerful piece of work.

One of the joys of this album is the quality of the musicians Di Franco has assembled around her and the groove they’re able to bring about on much of this recording. In addition to her long term rhythm section of Todd Sickafoose on bass and drummer Terence Higgins there are a number of outstanding musicians from the worlds of folk, Americana and Funk. Jazz violinist Jenny Scheinman, Bon Iver’s multi instrumentalist Justin Vernon and ex Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey all make appearances but the musicians that really give this album it’s soul are funk legends saxophonist Maceo Parker and keyboard maestro Ivan Neville. This fascinating combination of talents make many of the tracks on this album fizz and pop with real effervescence. These days Ani Di Franco is a New Orleans resident and both Higgins and Neville are native to the city; you can really hear that Crescent City vibe throughout much of this album.

There really isn’t a bad track here but some stand out a little more than others. Pacifist’s Lament is a beautifully layered track and the quality of the production really shines in this song. Zizzing has to be my favourite song title in a long time, Alrighty has a great jazz feel and an outstanding violin solo from Jenny Scheinman, Telepathic boasts great bass lines, Terrifying Sight really shows off Ivan Neville’s keyboard skills….Di Franco is a generous collaborator; this is very much her album but she really lets her fellow musicians shine through.

One slight complaint – Ani Di Franco is such an accomplished poet that it’s a shame no lyric sheet was included with the album. It may be because this copy is a promotional one and it’s to be hoped the official release carries details of her lyrics, they deserve to be more widely appreciated.

If you enjoy this album, and it’s hard to imagine why you wouldn’t, it’s worth going to YouTube to check out the acoustic version of many of these tracks. There’s an old songwriter’s adage that if you can’t play your song on an acoustic guitar then it’s not a good song. Nearly every track on this album is available as an acoustic version on YouTube and they’re worth checking out because they show you how well structured these songs are. Pacifist’s Lament is particularly impressive in stripped back, acoustic form – but it’s the funky arrangements on this album that really make it stand out. These arrangements are uplifting and just great fun – but they also serve to put the content of the songs into sharp relief, the arrangements of these songs may be fun but the subject matters are very serious.

Folkfunk at its best.

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