The CD's featured on this blog are among my favourites from those I've recently discovered and played on my weekly radio show.
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Finding love, having a kid and moving to New Orleans have all had a profoundly positive effect on Ani diFranco's poetry and music. As she sings in "If Yr Not" on her new release, if you're not getting happier as you get older then something is badly wrong. On the majority of the songs on this album, there is an unhurried artiste who is confidently at the top of her game - sparse arrangements that, with their quiet poetry, shed some light on the human condition. As always, diFranco's playing of her many accoustic and electric guitars, with their weird and wonderful tunings, is nothing short of virtuosic.
Politically diFranco has, throughout her entire career, been actively promoting the Occupy values. Well before anyone actually Occupied Tahrir Square, Wall St or any of the other Main Streets anywhere else, she was penning scathing attacks on the military industrial patriarchy in the USA such as "To The Teeth" and "Self Evident". She touches here on being homeless (the lifeboat in "Lifeboat" being a park bench), using aircons and heaters less ("Splinter"), buying local and buying less ("J"), demanding less packaging ("Zoo"), and on an "Amendment" to enshrine hard-won women's rights. She calls for overthrowing the oil tycoons with whale harpoons for there being "no fish in the water, no birds in the sky, no life in the soil and no end to the lie".
Her feminist re-working of the old Pete Seeger anthem "Which Side Are You On?" is a raucous rallying cry to all progressive people in the USA to get out and vote later this year. We start with some simple banjo picking by 90 year old Seeger himself and end with the beautifully dirty sounds of New Orleans brass and a marching anthem for the times.
"...the curse of Reaganomics has finally taken its toll. Lord knows the free market is anything but free. It costs dearly to the planet and the likes of you and me."
But this time around it is the tenderness of the love songs that is most striking. It sounds like she now has a life partner who has taught her to "Unworry" (and whom she has taught to "unhide"). On the sublimely beautiful "Albacore" she talks of having "just tattooed a wedding band on what looks to me like my mother's hand" and she sees "a honeymoon in the albacore sky". In "Hearse" she talks of "following you into the next life like a dog chasing a hearse" and in "Mariachi", she and her lover form a perfect two-person mariachi band. "Let's get this party started" she sings, "let's squeeze the lime. The mariachi life is really more than fine"
And she's right. It is.
Of late, the spin merchants employed by the Republican Party in the USA have been in panic mode. Due to the Occupy Movement changing the National Conversation, the air has all but gone from the Tea Party's sails and hardly anyone in their Party has cottoned onto the fact.
At least three "elderly" American musos have been paying attention. Late last year.Ry Cooder and Tom Waits both brought out brilliant CD's bursting with righteous anger. This month it is Bruce Springsteen's turn. Back in the Seventies, after the seminal "The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle" and the breathless, breakthrough "Born To Run", Springsteen allowed the punk phenomenon to inform his brooding classic "Darkness on the Edge of Town". But, to my ear, that was the last time he released a studio album without a single duff track.
The opening song on his new CD has an ironic delivery that is very reminiscent of "Born in the USA" - decrying the way people have been left hanging post-Katrina and post-GFC. "We take care of our own, wherever this flag is flown" is as critical of uncaring governments as "Born in the USA" was critical of the way war veterans are habitually hung out to dry on their return home. And it's just as likely to be misinterpreted as a patriotic anthem as it's predecessor. By the time we get through "Easy Money" ( where robbery feels like the only way out of poverty ) and "Shackled and Drawn" (where we are all shackled while the party is in full swing on Banker's Hill), the central character of "Jack of all Trades" is ready to take a gun to the bankers responsible for a repossession.
"Death to my Hometown", "This Depression" and "Wrecking Ball" all keep up in the same vein - decrying the lack of compassion in modern day America. Throughout this lyrical journey, Springsteen has become much more musically adventurous with his careful cherry-picking of so many genres - from rap (a beautiful vignette by Michelle Moore on "Rocky Ground") to full-blown Gospel choirs to Irish Punk-Folk a la Pogues, he has finally managed to fuse together the two previously diverse strands of his most recent musical ventures. The stadium rock of the E Street band has now had the riotous but virtuosic folk of the Seeger Sessions Band grafted onto it, and sounds so much better for it.
"Land of Hope and Dreams" and "American Land" are two rabble-rousers - old live Springsteen songs that have never found a place on a studio album before. Here they finish off the set, sublimely bookending "We are Alive" (itself surely inspired by Bruce losing so many of his friends and colleagues in recent years) and one of his most experimental songs ever - "Swallowed Up (in the Belly of the Whale)".
Springsteen saves up one of the most poignant, searing saxophone solos ever recorded by his dear departed friend Clarence Clemons to round off his best release in decades. If you are interested in the vision behind "Wrecking Ball", you can check out Springsteen's keynote speech to the SXSW Conference in Texas on NPR's website.