Choose Ani

Why Ani Difranco should -- and shouldn't -- be the new voice of Rage.

| April 12, 2001
So, who's your pick? That dude from Cypress Hill or Chuck D.? The Ruler of the Funky Buddha or The Mouth That Roared? I'm talking about who the new lead singer for Rage Against the Machine should be, of course. The highest-profile radical rock band in the land needs a new mouthpiece, and those seem to be the prime names being bandied about. I wish I could say I'm surprised that no woman's name has come up, though it'd be a much more radical move to let a femme voice (and perspective) harness the phallic power of Tom Morello's axe than another Boy Acting Serious and Important. Like Public Enemy before them and like many other great agit-rock acts, Rage's rage seemed as much about macho posturing as inspiring a livable revolution, and incorporating a little girlie action into their Godzilla-like roar might be a refreshing new direction. All of which is a roundabout way of offering my own suggestion for a new lead singer: Ani Difranco!

Why not? Difranco could use the commercial boost after watching her cult diminish over the last few years, and Rage could use someone with the ability to connect their political sloganeering (and the power of their Molotov-cocktail music) to the physical and emotional realities of everyday life. Sounds like a match to me.

For those outside her core demographic -- (very) young, smart, left-leaning (white) women -- Difranco can be an acquired taste. After dismissing her for years, like so many others have, as a strident feminist folkie (and "folkie" is the bad word here, not "feminist"), Difranco finally won me over in 1998, when I stumbled onto "Fuel," a cut from her Little Plastic Castles album. Righteous and caustic, funny and quirky, down-to-earth but with an unexpectedly visionary twist, "Fuel" still sounds like the "protest" song of the decade to me. The song begins with Difranco walking by a Manhattan construction site where a slave cemetery has just been found ("May their souls rest easy now that lynching is illegal/and we've moved on to the electric chair"), a sight that triggers a personalized, stream-of-consciousness State of the Union address that encompasses everything from bankrupt politics to crass corporate culture to our isolated citizenry -- all conveyed in a thrillingly conversational, everygirl voice. Then Difranco snaps back to real time, still standing over the unearthed cemetery, with a desire to dig even deeper: "down beneath the impossible pain of our history/beneath the unknown bones/and the bedrock of the mystery" to a place where "there's a fire just waiting for fuel." Morello's quicksilver guitar could be the sonic match needed to ignite the blaze.

Okay -- time to cut the crap. Won't happen, right? Rage's sound is too monolithic to make room for someone whose rhythms and desires seem so deeply personal. Besides, married and past 30, Difranco's radicalism knows too many shades of grey to embrace the reckless abandon of Rage's revolution.

The political genius of Difranco's art is her ability to demonstrate, without ever seeming too willful, how an ethical outlook and subsequent emotional responses can inform how you relate to a lover and a friend as much as it informs how you relate to your country. With the new, two-disc, two-hour torrent of images and ideas, Revelling/Reckoning -- essentially her marriage album -- Difranco makes this connection plainer than ever. What Difranco has done in the process -- perhaps unintentionally -- is leave her kids' cult behind and craft a great adult pop album -- a hard thing to do in a genre clogged with the dispiriting self-regard of people like Sting and Don Henley.

The two records have distinct personalities: Revelling boasts fuller arrangements, making the most of Difranco's unique jazz/funk-folk. Reckoning is more intimate and introspective, boasting a more captivating group of songs. Each record lives up to its title. Revelling starts off, on "Ain't That The Way," with Maceo Parker background vocals and Difranco scrunching up her voice like the "Left Eye" Lopes of funk-folk. The message: "Love makes me feel so dumb." Difranco restates this theme of romantic happiness a bit more slyly on "Marrow": "I'm a good kisser/and you're a fast learner/and that kind of thing could float us/for a pretty long time."

But Reckoning is the real keeper, with "Your Next Bold Move" starting with this: "Coming of age during the plague/of Reagan and Bush/watching capitalism gun down democracy/it had this funny effect on me." It's a defeat song, chastising the ineffectualness of a "left wing that was broken long ago," but what makes it remarkable is how effortlessly the song's emotion segues into the more personal skepticism of the following marriage songs, "Reckoning" and "So What." And so it is with the whole of the record, as the political defiance of a song like "Subdivision" ("White people are so scared of black people/they bulldoze out to the country/and put up houses on little loop-dee-loop streets/while America gets its heart cut right out of its chest") mingles easily with the romantic travails of a song like "Sick of Me" ("The first person in your life/to ever really matter/is saying the last thing/that you want to hear"), making it all sound like part of the same struggle.

So while the job might sound tempting, Difranco probably won't be too concerned if Rage's invite never arrives. Judging from Revelling/Reckoning, she's got more serious battles to wage.

You can e-mail Chris Herrington at herrington@memphisflyer.com.


Music Notes

by CHRIS HERRINGTON

The Premier Player Awards, held at The Pyramid Thursday, April 5th, may have been the site of a New Orleans invasion, but Memphis artists still stole the show. This annual awards ceremony, sponsored by the local chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, is essentially the local Grammys, and this year famed New Orleans funk band the Meters took home the Governors Award, the Premier Player's highest honor. Three-fourths of the original Meters lineup (drummer Joseph Modeliste was a no-show) closed the show with a half-hour greatest-hits set.

The Meters minus one were fine. I may have gotten more of a charge from staying home with my Wild Tchoupitoulas record, but The Meters were still much better than younger New Orleans groove bands Galactic and Astral Project on a night when five of 14 performers fell loosely into the "jam-rock" category, encompassing the good (Meters, North Mississippi Allstars), the so-so (FreeWorld, Galactic), and the so, so bad (the tepid noodle-jazz of Astral Project).

The Meters may have walked away with the show's biggest honor, but the night really belonged to locals the North Mississippi Allstars and fast-rising Cory Branan. The Allstars took home their second straight award for Best Band and also picked up the Outstanding Achievement Award, besting competition like platinum-selling Three 6 Mafia and hot producer Paul Ebersold for the award that band patriarch Jim Dickinson won last year.

Singer-songwriter Branan won the Phillips Newcomer Award and seemed genuinely surprised, explaining, "I don't even have a record out," but thanking voters for keeping their ears to the ground. Branan, who received fervent applause whenever his name came up, also gave arguably the night's best performance with a typically edgy and heartfelt reading of his song "Tame" during a songwriter's showcase with Nancy Apple and Keith Sykes.

In all, 21 awards were given, with Steve Potts (drums/percussion), Jim Spake (woodwinds), and Jackie Johnson (female vocalist) joining the Allstars as repeat winners.

The show opened with a "Mardi Gras parade" led by eclectic Best Band nominee FreeWorld and spiked by cameos from Jackie Johnson and last year's rap winner Lois Lane. Performances from Best Female Vocalist nominees were among the show's strongest segments. Ruby Wilson delivered a blistering rendition of the Etta James standard "At Last," with sax man Jim Spake, fresh from winning his eighth woodwinds award in the program's 16 years, getting a nice showcase. And female vocalist winner Johnson joined nominee Susan Marshall-Powell for a powerful run-through of William Bell's "You Don't Miss Your Water" and a gospel number.

Spake's brief acceptance speech, in which he issued a casual plea for voters to check out a wider range of local music, was one of the few interesting thank-yous of the night. Gaffe of the night award has to go to host Larry Raspberry, who revealed himself to be probably the only person left in Memphis who hasn't seen The Poor & Hungry when he mistakenly said the film was a documentary while introducing director and Best Band Award presenter Craig Brewer.

The most decorum-free performances of the night came from a couple of Best Band nominees and likely sources: Big Ass Truck, a club band that's been around so long now they're probably underrated, were a highlight, dedicating a performance spiked by Steve Selvidge's animated guitar to late local musician Craig Shindler. And Lucero gave the most out-of-place and, consequently, the most interesting performance of the night with a willfully perverse reading of their slow, loud, and mean live staple "No Roses, No More." Technical problems dulled the performance's force, though, and it was hard to tell if the deliberate change of pace won them new fans or drove potential converts away.

This year's winners were: Harmonica: Blind Mississippi Morris; Woodwinds: Jim Spake; Brass: Scott Thompson; Guitar: Preston Shannon; Strings: Susanna Perry Gilmore; Live DJ/Turntable Artist: Michael "Boogaloo" Boyer; Rappers: Three 6 Mafia; Drums/Percussion: Steve Potts; Bass: Dave Smith; Keyboards: Tony Thomas and Charlie Wood; Female Vocalist: Jackie Johnson; Male Vocalist: Jimmy Davis; Choir: O'Landa Draper's Associates; Teacher: Jackie Thomas; Engineer: William Brown; Producer: Paul Ebersold; Newcomer/Phillips Award: Cory Branan; Community Service/John Tigrett Award: WEVL FM-90; Outstanding Achievement: North Mississippi Allstars; Songwriter: Kevin Paige; Band: North Mississippi Allstars.

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