Folk-rock singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco has never been one to seek pop stardom or radio airplay, and her new album Evolve does not deviate from that trend.
Evolve’s 12 songs are musically divided between jaunty acoustic guitar-led folk and contemporary jazz. And while neither of these styles has found extensive commercial success in today’s music industry, outspoken feminist and social commentator DiFranco proves that her brand of music need not be heard on the radio to develop a loyal cult following.
On Evolve, DiFranco displays her evolution as an instrumentalist and arranger. Most of the songs involve skilled musical composition that reaches beyond standard chord patterns and gimmicky pop arrangements. In addition to gracing the album with majestic and blistering acoustic guitar work, DiFranco’s arrangements include jazzy piano melodies and well-placed horn accompaniment that offer a melodious counterpoint to her mercurial vocals and lyrics.
It is this truly unique stylistic singing that gives Evolve its passion and flair. DiFranco growls, squeaks, moans, croons, whispers and shouts her way through Evolve with an energy and indignation seen in few other singers. DiFranco gives her most impressive vocal performance on the swinging jazz number “In the Way.” The song takes on a life of its on as DiFranco alternates between an aggressive, rapid-fire delivery and quieter but equally biting passages. But while DiFranco’s singing on Evolve displays her obvious talent, some occasional standard singing would have been an effective change of pace on this album.
Despite these strengths, the album’s last two songs leave Evolve with a mediocre end to an otherwise triumphant album. The 10-minute epic “Serpentine” takes too long to get going: DiFranco’s intro guitar passages do not add to the song, and she then drowns out the song’s haunting guitar melody with a far too angry and indulgent vocal. The song’s lyric is surprisingly cliched as well, as DiFranco’s attempt at Bob Dylan-styled social commentary ends up becoming seven minutes of unrelenting whining. And the album’s finale “Welcome To:” is little more than a glorified, pedestrian coffeehouse ballad.
But those failures are offset by some excellent compositions. “Slide” is classic folk with dissonant background vocals that give the song an eerie, disjointed (but enjoyable) feel. DiFranco unleashes crisp guitar and breathy vocalization that carry the driving “Here For Now,” the album’s best song. And the dramatic “Icarus” is superbly arranged with caustic guitar riffs accentuating the song’s bitterness. DiFranco’s lyrics sound resentful, as if attempting to subdue past suffering: “You’re trying not to grasp/ not to start grasping at straws or sticks or stones/ trying to learn to just sit inside your sadness/ even if you’re sitting there alone.”
With Evolve, DiFranco has maintained her staying power in a music industry rife with musicians seeking only fame and fortune. Although Evolve’s songs will not be topping the Billboard charts, DiFranco has again provided her listeners with a strong album that is a testament to her musical and vocal skill.