The easy part is the facts: that there are 36 cuts on these two CDs, taken from Ani DiFranco's catalog over a 14-year time span. There are many familiar songs here: "Firedoor" (the Like I Said version), "Coming Up," "Hello Birmingham," "Buildings and Bridges," "Joyful Girl," "Marrow," and "Manhole," to name just a few. It's even easy to write that, in addition to the original songs, there are five new versions of old favorites in "Napoleon," "Shameless," "Your Next Bold Move," "Both Hands," and "Overlap." That's all simple. What's difficult is tracking it all from 1993 through to 2007 through a staggering 16 studio albums, three live offerings, and a few EPs and singles tossed in. It seems that the same person who writes and plays these songs has only gotten sharper, cleverer, wrier, and less wordy, perhaps, but that's just language and the practice of craft seasoning. But in listening to this set it's nearly impossible to chart her development as a very original guitarist who plays in no style but her own, the way she can convey more by using her voice less, and her depth as a musical collaborator with some of the best in the biz from Sara Lee and Jay Bellerose to Jon Hassel, Andrew Bird, Todd Sickafoose, Patrick Warren, and many others. Her wide-ranging sense of musical adventure has only grown, along with her lasting commitment not only to what she believes, but to continuing to offer contrasting, sometimes contradictory views that all come off as on the money. Her humor now is as caustic as her rage, which has grown itself into a wizened, complex, and even diffident anger, where the poetry in the songs is more sophisticated but no less accessible than it was when she began.
Canon is a document to be sure, a "best of," but it's also a testament to something else: that through the biz and media trends, from riot grrrl to the rise of the '90s and 2000s troops of female singer/songwriters who come and go, DiFranco is always here, has been present, and has not paying attention to the machinations of such things. She's on a path, and the music here offers that it's a wildly divergent one sometimes, but it is unquestionably hers, and she doesn't let go of anything she collects -- until she's ready to, that is, and even then you can see the traces of her own scratch marks all over that thing: fascination, Eros, agape, heartbreak, betrayal, love, violence, celebration, and anger both righteous and petty (she discovers these things herself, it's not a critical judgment). Or maybe, she simply weaves them all into her own quilt, thread by thread, to be identified and grabbed when needed most. Her street smarts remain intact after nearly two decades of being in the public eye and she has created a place for herself without owing a debt to anyone. Forget the stories and interviews: it's all in the music on Canon. This is a whopper of an introduction to a contemporary singer/songwriter for any young or old person coming to her work anew, but it needs to be. This is actually economical and sharpened to a point of only what's really necessary -- while one can get a solid clue from a single song, the picture is so much more complex than that, and it needs to be proffered as such. For those who have followed her career from the start or jumped on the DiFranco train with Dilate or anywhere else along the way, the music here offers a sense of continuity, and a context; not merely a mixtape or "progression." That last thing will be a mystery long after the second disc has finished playing. There isn't anything about Canon that feels like a money grab or a "hold 'em over til we get something new" effort. It's as honest and sincere as a retrospective can be. DiFranco is an impure poet, a wild, loopy musician who lives in her tunes but is not limited to them, and will not be corralled, and this double-disc set is not only proof, but reason for celebrating the fact that there are still those who can -- by the sheer force of desire and the guts to see it all through -- refuse to be told they can't, and show us in many shades, textures, shapes, colors, and forms, how they not only can, but do. [Canon was also released as a bonus CD.]