Anti-folk heroine Ani DiFranco unleashes kinetic live album

In her first live album in five years, Ani DiFranco has sated the fervor from her performance-hungry fans with a feverish compilation of material that focuses largely on the evolution of her music. So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter, released publicly Sept. 10, features more than two hours of DiFranco’s particular brand of charisma, presented against the backdrop of the cohesive six-piece band she’s toured with in recent years.

The first disc, entitled “Stray Cats,” immediately sets a manic pace. DiFranco chooses to introduce her album with a flash of flippant annoyance: a complaint that she “hate[s] that acoustic guitar sound” – a sound she has tortured and exploited and to which she owes her success as a pioneer in anti-folk and independent music. At this point in her career, DiFranco’s music is covered by artists as diverse as Soulive, Dave Matthews and Chuck D’s The Impossebulls.

Opening with the darkly kinetic “Swan Dive,” a characteristic example of her darker impulses and rejection of convention from 1998’s Little Plastic Castles, DiFranco illustrates her conflicting adherence to and deviation from her folk roots. The track expands from a stumbling solo acoustic intro into a full-band operation by the first chorus. The horns augment the piece in particular and the album as a whole with a distinctly jazz ingredient. Recent years and studio albums suggest that jazz and funk have become DiFranco’s destination and not just her route. From the first track, it is apparent that an undeniable maturity has entered DiFranco’s repertoire as the influential seventh member of her musical outfit.

By far the most impressive track on the first disc is her sublime rendition of “Grey,” which first appeared on 2001’s double album Revelling/Reckoning. Written in a moment of impenetrable melancholy, this exquisite piece has managed to grow wings in the year since its release. Its haunting melody and disturbing self-destructive lyrics seem to synthesize in the atrium of the concert hall to produce a result that chills the listener. Performed live, “Grey” soars and resonates through the instruments of those in her band, ultimately expelling itself through DiFranco with the force of a thunderstorm.

“Napoleon,” originally on 1996’s Dilate and one of three tracks that makes an appearance both here and on her 1997 live double album, Living In Clip, has markedly developed. A frustrated ode against stardom, this song once celebrated the stripped down trinity of guitar, bass and drums. DiFranco perhaps has less to prove at this stage in her career. Six years later, she has unabashedly incorporated an involved harmony and intricate keyboard backdrop. Unfortunately, her guitar at times gets lost in the wall of sound. Its complexity forces an immediate comparison to the Living In Clip version, whose beauty relies more compellingly on its emotion, reaching a level both more visceral and convincing than the So Much Shouting rendition.

On the second disc, called “Girls Singing Night,” DiFranco takes an obvious delight in performing rareties. “Dilate” also exemplifies the progress DiFranco has made musically since 1996, when she first released this bitter love song to the sound engineer who eventually became her husband. Hans Teuber’s saxophone rises and falls in the foreground, to supplement and often replace DiFranco’s trilling voice. “Girls Singing Night” spans DiFranco’s career in its entirety, including “Gratitude” from 1991’s Not So Soft. Rarely performed live, it is recognized here only by the die-hards in the back of the auditorium – for the majority of her crowd, it seemed to be an unknown.

In perhaps the most conspicuous contrast to Living In Clip, the crowd noise is all but entirely muted on the album, as if DiFranco did all she could to take away the emphasis from her zealously devoted fan base. She has said in the past that her well-meaning, but over-enthusiastic fans will cheer for the wrong lines. With such tweaking, the listener’s attention is directed to the subtleties of the rhythm and horn sections, and the aching harmonies of Julie Wolf, DiFranco’s longtime friend and keyboardist. With the music, not the concert experience, as the focus, the album has limited potentially distracting live-specific elements and demands an attentive, trained ear. Furthermore, DiFranco shies away from impromptu political diatribes – a self-indulgent habit that has plagued recent live contributions from colleagues like Lauryn Hill, whose MTV Unplugged 2.0 album is equal parts transcendent music and tiresome commentary.

This is not to say that DiFranco’s often astonishingly left-winged politics do not make cameos. It would not be a DiFranco album without her commentary, which her fans cheer on ardently. “Self-Evident,” the requisite Sept. 11-inspired track from a performer who has in the past written about New York as some performers have written about lovers, lashes out at her usual enemies with a particular appetite – President George W. Bush, Israel and the media are not spared a single acid remark. This is one of few tracks, interestingly, where the audience was not hushed in post-production. However, their affirmation of her more extreme personal policies ring shallow and sycophantic, even in liberal ears.

The album taken as a whole feels more like a biography than a greatest-hits compilation. Often self-indulgent but always joyfully expressive, DiFranco seems to have fattened her capacity to enjoy her talents. It is an impressive, even nostalgic collection of bits of DiFranco’s past tracing through the passage of time, picking up speed along the way.