Like a favorite chair, it’s easy to take Ani DiFranco for granted. Always there, always as expected, always comfortable/satisfying in her execution, it’s easy to miss the standards she maintains. And the way she pushes at the cuticle of the female condition in such delightfully savory ways.
On Binary, DiFranco casts a vast net across influences as she hones deeply humanist social commentary. Invoking Wiktionary’s definition of “binary” as not comparable, the activist/feminist/songwriter uses music to make the political alluring in a time of great stridence and division. Whether the lush soul/folk of “Pacifist’s Lament,” a silken consideration of being easier to stop trouble long before it starts that evokes “Gandhi and Dr. King and Aung San Suu Kyi” or the thumping sneaky funk of “Play God,” a throwdown for women’s physical autonomy in a right to life world, the Grammy and Woody Guthrie Award winner makes music so narcotic, the listener gets lost in the melody and groove long before they realize what truths these songs contain.
As always, DiFranco—now living in New Orleans—mines her own life and perspective for Binary’s 11 songs. But more than personal details, it’s a personal manifesto for times like these. The staccato skip of “Telepathic” makes the case for empathy, while the trombone/clarinet/trumpet accented “Deferred Gratification” is a lullaby to impulse control and the check-your-gratitude “Terrifying Sight,” which suggests Kate Bush in her prime, crafts that vortex of greater good that defines DiFranco.
Working with legendary alto saxman Maceo Parker, multi-instrumental New Orleans royalty Ivan Neville, violinist Jenny Scheinman and jazz bassist/Tiny Resistor Todd Sickafoose, the playing recalls Joni Mitchell’s fluidly Charles Mingus-informed pop years. Conjuring atmospherics and a quiet tension give “Zizzing” its erotic torque and disintegration; with background vocals from Bon Iver/Justin Vernon, it uses a very few words to suggest the rise, fall and confusion around desire.
Numbering Prince, Pete Seeger, Cyndi Lauper, Chuck D, Rob Wasserman and Utah Phillips as collaborators, the songwriter’s far flung musical curiosity opens portals of rhythm and cross-genre explorations of pop forms. On the minimalist shuffle “Sasquatch,” punctuated by…wait for it…panting, DiFranco twirls a lyric that taunts, then invites the monster to come out and surrender to (unconditional) love. Neville’s blue jazz piano runs ripple though the almost toy soldier snare drum as DiFranco intones a come hither that is as much playful as tender.
Comfortably merging politics and humanity, odd genre hybrids and supple playing, Binary finds DiFranco’s 19th solo studio album provocative and thought-provoking. Making people think, evidently, is as easy as moving their soles, so their soul can follow.