By Eleni P. Austin
“I know pain is a teacher, to be welcomed and not feared/Alas pain is your ally, so embrace it while it’s here/It’s here to open your eyes, here to make the way clear/…But me I’m just happy, yes me I’m happy all the time.”
That’s Ani DiFranco on her latest album, Allergic To Water. It’s a radical admission from the ever-questioning Punk-Folk warrior, who has been kicking against the pricks for nearly 25 years.
Ani DiFranco grew up in Buffalo, New York. She picked up the guitar at an early age. By the time she was nine, she was busking in bars and street corners, chaperoned by her guitar teacher, Mike Meldrum.
Beatles covers gave way to her own introspective songs. Just as her parents’ marriage was ending, Ani became an emancipated minor at age 15. Three years later, she moved to New York City, intent on a music career.
Honing her skills in coffee houses, dive bars and women’s centers, Ani began to cultivate a devoted following. Her fans clamored for a recording, so she self-released her eponymous cassette in 1990.
Armed with only an acoustic guitar and an ever-growing arsenal of songs, Ani criss-crossed the United States in her Volkswagen bug. She sold cassettes at her shows and on consignment in little stores. As demand for her music grew, she partnered with Buffalo mentor (and lawyer), Scott Fisher and created her own label, Righteous Babe.
Throughout the ‘90s, Ani’s passionate fan base increased. Her sound was a hybrid of Folk and Punk, her confessional songs openly discussed all facets of her life. A fierce feminist, she initially identified as bi-sexual.
Despite her piercings, shaved head and tattoos, mainstream media began paying attention. Ani was feted in the pages of Rolling Stone and Ms. She was a cover girl for Spin and Musician. Major labels began to court her, but Ani preferred the autonomy (and the bigger profit margin), Righteous Babe afforded her.
In between non-stop touring, she released some watershed records. Dilate chronicled her doomed affair with a married man. Little Plastic Castle dealt with the intense scrutiny and rigid expectations that accompanied her newfound fame. Revelling/Reckoning, detailed her marriage(to the infamous married man) and subsequent divorce.
By the turn of the 21st century, Righteous Babe had become the little indie that could. Located in Ani’s hometown of Buffalo, New York, the label had begun releasing albums by other artists, including Andrew Bird, Toshi Reagon and Alanis Mitchell.
When a centuries old church was destined for the wrecking ball, Righteous Babe leaped into action. Not only did they spearhead the fight to designate it an historical landmark, they actually bought the building and painstakingly restored it. Now it serves as Righteous Babe’s headquarters, complete with a performance space, Babeville.
Two events occurred in the early 2000s that radically recalibrated Ani’s career. First, she became romantically involved with recording engineer/producer Mike Napolitano. Then in 2005 she was diagnosed with tendonitis and couldn’t play her guitar or tour for nine months.
She and Napolitano have been a couple ever since, welcoming their daughter, Petah, in 2007, marrying in 2009, and having their son, Dante in 2013. The tendonitis forced Ani to slow her whirlwind schedule of writing, recording and touring. Finally she began to slow down and re-focused her priorities.
Ani is raising her family in the Bywater section of New Orleans. After 18 studio albums, three official live albums and 15 “bootleg” live recordings, released directly through Righteous Babe, she has definitely earned the right to rest on her laurels. Naturally she must confound convention and expectations and release her 19th record, Allergic To Water.
The album opens with Ani’s instantly recognizable percussive and questioning guitar chords. The opening track, “Dithering” begins pensively before slipping into a slinky, slow-cooked funk groove. A diatribe against sensory overload, Ani concludes “ask me anything about anything, I got a lot of shit in rotation.”
The songs for this album were written surreptitiously, between breast feedings and play dates. It isn’t exactly disjointed, but it doesn’t have the usual unifying structure that characterizes most of Ani’s records.
The warrior who has championed racial equality, and a woman’s right to choose, and vilified the architects of the Iraq war, the patriarchy and gentrification is not exactly absent, but perhaps hibernating.
Three tracks, “Woe Be Gone,” “Careless Words” and “Allergic To Water” offer subtle social commentary. The sweet and sunny melody for “Woe Be Gone” belies lyrics that question our complacency. Tentative bass, guitar and drums ebb and flow colored by honeyed Wurlitzer fills and swooping violin, as Ani questions the status quo. “I mean what the hell? Raise your hand if you’re at peace right now/In fact just stand up and take a bow, everywhere you look you just see damaged goods…”
“Careless Words” seem to take President Obama to task for unfulfilled promises. Over somber guitar chords and propulsive rhythms, she offers a stinging indictment. “You really spoke your mind big talker, at least your mind at the time/Now I’m wearing your words big talker, like a necklace and rings/Just glad it wasn’t me big talker that said all those things…careless words I can never unknow.”
Finally, the title track is a fluid allegory. Lone piano chords flow into plucked acoustic notes and a martial cadence. The lyrics portray a woman with an unimaginable allergy to water. “..It itches my throat and it blisters my skin/Still, I drink cuz I have to, I bathe cuz I have to, but boy it’s a pain/But I don’t cry, cuz it hurts to cry and I don’t go out in the rain.” Really the song is a metaphor, reminding us that things that sustain us, everything meaningful, important and essential is also painful and a struggle.
The remainder of the album’s songs proffer clear-eyed encomiums to domestic bliss. From the modal dervish of “Genie,” which features tamburitza, orchestron and sawing violin fills, Ani obliquely thanks her partner for breaking through her defenses. “You came out of the blue, like twilight’s first star…/And we woke up married after one drunk fuck, and I couldn’t believe you’d found me, I couldn’t believe my luck.”
Ani’s familiar cluster of pin-prick chords launch “Yeah Yr Right.” Over an infectious hip-sway rhythm, accented by harpsichord and violin, she confesses “I’m so into you, I’m into me too.”
Both “See See See See” and “tr’w” are languid odes to post-coital bliss. The former is anchored by percolating percussion and feather-light acoustic strumming. Ani is frisky and flirty as she offers to “make you feel like a man.”
The latter feels lush and carnal, locking into a sweet soul groove that recalls Prince and Sly & The Family Stone. Finally, the aforementioned “Happy All The Time” is a whimsical waltz wherein a contented Ani rather uncharacteristically counts her blessings.
The lone note of domestic dissent is “Harder Than It Needs To Be.” The slightly mournful melody echoes the dirge-like Funeral music of New Orleans. Ani anxiously pleads “Honey please don’t roll your eyes around just to put me down/It’s exactly as hard to talk to you as it is to talk to me.” Lowing sousaphone notes act as a melancholy Greek chorus.
The album closes with the lovely “Rainy Parade.” Quiet and contemplative, the track features a tinkly xylophone. Here, Ani advises us to take the good with the bad: “Either way you better take your lemons and make your lemonade/Life’s a rainy parade.”
Despite the fact that there’s an award winning producer actually living in her house, Ani produced and mixed Allergic To Water herself.
She received stalwart support from longtime collaborator, multi-instrumentalist, Todd Sickafoose. Other contributors are Terrance Higgens on drums, Jenny Scheinman on violin and Mike Dillon on percussion. New Orleans native Matt Perrine played sousaphone and Big Easy legend Cyril Neville helped out with Wurlitzer, piano and clavinet. He will also be part of Ani’s touring band.
Allergic To Water isn’t an essential Ani record, but’s a welcome edition to her impressive cannon.