Knuckle Down (Righteous Babe)
by Tim Den
I, like many others, have long been an admirer of Ani DiFranco. After all, what’s not to worship? She has built her own indie label into a global powerhouse (equivalent of a folk Dischord) on her own terms, released an album per year for over a decade, and developed guitar skills that would shame most metal axe-slingers (her percussive yet melodic style, developed over countless early coffeehouse gigs to overpower crowd chatter, is muscular yet articulate). I’d say she’s pretty frickin’ admirable. So it is with even more admiration than usual that I declare Knuckle Down my favorite record of hers. No, I’m not a diehard fan who knows the words to her entire back catalog, but I have heard enough through friends, other fans, and ex-girlfriends to know that Knuckle Down sounds more humble, intimate, substantial, and “grown up” than the Ani of the past. For one, she concentrates on her strengths here: More somber, moody, tuneful, introspective numbers than “quick spoken word chatter over perky folk.” “Studying Stones” is wistful and poignant, “Manhole” (my fave) is dignified and lilting, “Sunday Morning” is warm and universally relatable, and “Recoil” is vulnerable yet melodically invincible. I was actually stunned by how beautiful the songs are this time around. There’s still political fire beneath the confessionals, but overall, the feeling is more reflective and sentimental. Sure, not all are winners – “Seeing Eye Dog” and “Lag Time” would’ve made the album better with their absence – but the positives far outweigh the negatives.
Having said that, I must point out something that bothers me both with portions of Knuckle Down and with Ani’s work in general. Example one: The chorus of “Callous,” in which she states “you can’t will your cunt wet” as if it’s not a rebellious 10th-grade poetry way to metaphorically speak. It doesn’t shock, it doesn’t particularly strengthen the point she’s making (especially when the rest of the chorus is ripe with lean metaphors), so why did she chose to use it? The Ani of the past has often taken this road, and I’m disappointed that she retreads it here. Example two: “Parameters.” Despite a hauntingly effective narrative (great descriptions, great timing, great choices in revealing/withholding details), Ani’s overly melodramatic dictation – accentuated by her quick intakes of breath between every phrase – creates an unease in the listener as if he/she is at a high school open mic. Youthful energy and overly theatrical delivery are both great attributes under the right circumstances, but when it’s supposed to be a claustrophobic, emotionally-tense piece, one should refrain from sounding so… how should I put it… eagerly perky. This, too, is something that Ani has done in the past. Let’s hope the next record doesn’t have overzealous mood enhancers like “thunk thunk.”
Alright, enough nit-picking. If you don’t like Ani DiFranco, Knuckle Down just might change your mind with its steady brooding. If you’re a fan, you’ll find the most melodically delicious songs on here that Ani has ever written.