In a time when the once-liberating audaciousness of the riot grrrls has devolved into the solipsistic lipstick neurotica of Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette, when politics in rock tend to be masturbatory exercises in self-congratulation like the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, Ani DiFranco seems to have an almost supernatural integrity. Lyrically and
musically, the folk-singer's 11th full-length solo record, "To
the Teeth," is inspiring in a way that's nearly been
forgotten. It's imperfect and sometimes pedantic, but
it resonates with fierce idealism and proud joy.
Part of the record's power, I think, is that DiFranco has remained firmly rooted in Buffalo, N.Y., her hometown and mine, a desperate place that the country's recent prosperity hasn't touched. In Buffalo, Main Street separates black and white neighborhoods like a brick wall. The tense energy sparked by furious political polarization throbs in the city. When I lived there, there were violent confrontations almost weekly outside the abortion clinics. A sense of failure hangs heavy over the populace: It's so rare for the city's successful children to stick around that the Buffalo News ran an editorial praising DiFranco for doing so. All of this manifests itself in the political urgency and last-call pathos of "To the Teeth."
The preachiness that has been DiFranco's worst fault to date is here, especially in the first song, the anti-gun "To the Teeth." Still, her self-righteousness is far preferable to cheap irony. Now that advertising has utterly neutered rock 'n' roll ideas of "rebellion" and "alternative," Difranco is one of a very few who can genuinely offer either. Even overly blunt lines like "Open fire on each weapons manufacturer/While he's giving head to some republican senator" carry a real thrill in a climate where there's hardly any dissent from hipster hegemony.
The shrillness of that song is wholly redeemed by the devastating protest ballad "Hello Birmingham," which compares the civil rights struggle in the South to the abortion wars in Buffalo. DiFranco matter-of-factly delivers lyrics about being escorted to a clinic "by a man in a bulletproof vest," a line of powerful self-revelation that makes the issue feel intensely personal. I used to do clinic defense outside of Dr. Bernard Slepian's office, but the horror of his murder -- by a sniper who shot him through the window of his suburban Buffalo home -- didn't come home to me until I heard DiFranco's voice whisper-curl around the lines "A bullet insuring the right to life/Whizzed past his kid and his wife/And knocked his glasses/Right off his face."
But "To the Teeth" is far more than a brave folk record. It's also DiFranco's most musically exhilarating and diverse effort, shot through with sultry, soulful jazz, playful funk, rousing hip-hop and perfectly integrated elements of country, punk and drum 'n' bass. This may sound like a mess, but DiFranco has a superb ability to incorporate new styles into her own.
In fact, any rock musician contemplating a trendy move into electronic fusion should listen to "Swing" a few dozen times first. Sung with a syncopation that's inspired by hip-hop but utterly original, flavored with scratching and even guest MC vocals, "Swing" always feels like a DiFranco song. Unlike techno-come-latelies like Tori Amos, DiFranco is never content with gimmicks -- she masters the dynamics of new genres and makes them her own.
Having collaborators like Maceo Parker and Prince helps, of course. Parker plays flute on one song and sax on two, and his horn gives the music a deep, exuberant funk that never feels tacked on, while the Artist lends gorgeous, heartbroken soul to the melancholy "Providence." Even if the messages in "To the Teeth" were as trite as everything on MTV, the album would still be an artistic achievement. But DiFranco's words are as profound and true as her music, and "To the Teeth" is a reminder of what honesty sounds like.