"People used to make records as in a record of an event the event of people playing music in a room" -from "fuel" by Ani Difranco on Little Plastic Castle, (©1998 Righteous Babe Records, Inc.)
Starting with her eponymous debut in 1990, twenty albums have showcased Ani Difranco's potent mix of polemics and character studies, stylistic restlessness and virtuoso acoustic-guitar playing. She could have worked her way straight up the lucrative middle of the pop music road, but she has spent her time making her own way, developing her craft and working hard at having something to say. Her music seems to draw energy from alternately challenging and satisfying a loyal fan base (and any new listener), often within the contents of a single song. Her reward? She has been the central success of her own label, Righteous Babe Records and, as she puts it in the liner notes for her new live record, So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter, there is the satisfaction of "that feeling of being heard."
What is heard in this double-disc set is a broad sampling from her songbook, from shows recorded between September, 2000 and April, 2002. Difranco shares the stage with a band that she "built" for touring, plus her stalwart collaborator, Julie Wolf, on keyboards and vocals. Rounding out the sound on every track is a room full of people there to listen and, as the title indicates, shout and laugh.
Track one, "Swandive," illustrates the in-the-moment flavor of this collection, with Ani solo and unhappy with her acoustic guitar sound, grumbling that she only plays it because she got one as a child and "couldn't find anything better." Quickly, though, she finds the sound and the band comes in behind her with keyboard lines that snake around her staccato vocal delivery and smart, jazzy horns that unite the whole affair.
From there, the album stretches across styles and subjects. Acoustic folk-funk? Jam-punk? Jazz-rock- . . . whatever. Difranco has her sound and lyrically, she ranges from slices-of-life and heart-on-her sleeve confessionals, to Mother Jones-worthy political-as-personal sermons.
This album works well as an Ani Difranco primer and as an addition to fans' collections, showcasing a performer in mid-stride. For comparison, these tracks can be found in their original forms on other albums, or covered live on "Living in Clip," from 1997. Some songs, like "Dilate" or "To the Teeth"(both from albums by those names) are expanded simply with instrumental embellishment, but others, like "32 Flavors" or "Not A Pretty Girl" (both from "Not A Pretty Girl") find extra grit and muscle through real interpretive reworkings. Regardless, they stand well on their own.
So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter reminds me of seeing Ani Difranco walking in the French Quarter in New Orleans. In the midst of the noise and insanity, she was talking quietly with a group of fans. Suddenly, with a huge burst of laughter, she was off, sprinting down the street. Then she ran back, hugged them all and was away again, off to her own destination.