Ani DiFranco

(Righteous Babe)

Right from the start, at the dawn of a career that still didn't bear that name, the guitar has always been the counterpart for Ani DiFranco's voice; at first bearing traces of a home-made "folk with punk accents" approach, her guitar style later opened up to funky, jazz and African-percussive echoes  (and to electricity), always one of a piece with her compositional and vocal style, as is the norm in such cases (readers will have fun recalling their favourite instrumental examples). We can also consider how easily and how naturally an instrumental approach that had been developed in solitude later became an integral part of a large group which included wind instruments.

Last year, while sorry for the news about Ani DiFranco suffering from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, I questioned myself about the possible consequences of this fact on her music. The composite Evolve (2003) had seen her guitars going deeply into the vivacious - sometimes frenetic - moods of her old group for the last time; the solo (though overdubbed) Educated Guess (2004) appeared as if she was going back to old climates, and in a way the same could be told of Trust, the DVD-V she recorded live while doing a duo tour with double bass player Todd Sickafoose; a studio recording where she had used a group and a producer, Knuckle Down (2005) appeared as giving "cow-punk" and "alt. country" shadings to the musician's many musical moods. What about now?

The decisive element in making Reprieve the very nice album it is is without a doubt Todd Sickafoose, who also plays the electric Wurlitzer piano and the pump organ. Of course, the double bass is not a novel instrument in  Ani DiFranco's music, where many times Jason Mercer had used the acoustic instrument instead of its 5-string electric counterpart. What is obviously new is the prominence the instrument is given by its being placed in a duo dimension, more or less, strings and keyboards having echoes, effects, percussion and loops as their backdrop - and sometimes as their co-protagonists; all these are elements which give the work a pleasantly "modern" air, a fact which (maybe) will make it easier for a wider audience to like this record.

It's interesting to notice how the reduced emphasis placed on the guitars - and a certain "widening" of the atmospheres (which doesn't entail their being more "relaxed"!) - have in a way changed Ani DiFranco's vocal approach. Todd Sickafoose produces an instrumental timbre that - just to give readers a flavour of what it sounds like - we could define as being similar to Charlie Haden's. Nice echoes and proportions, this is the right place to laude the recording and mix work by Mike Napolitano, who skillfully complements DiFranco's production. An album that's in a way quite simple - and one that will be liked starting from the very first listening session - Reprieve offers quite a few instrumental touches and shadings that will only appear with repeated listening.

Hypnotized is an excellent opening track, with a nice double bass in an astute melodic and harmonic relationship with the piano; there's also a wide spatial placement when it comes to the voice, where a melody backed by loops and noises opens up to memory, and a tale. Nice agile pace in the following track, Subconscious, with its "walkin'" double bass; we also have a nice electric piano intro - almost "minimalistic"-sounding - in In The Margins. A double bass as a percussion instrument and a "liquid" synthesizer are featured in Nicotine, a track that due to its slow pace could have been titled Opium; nice bass close by Sickafoose. More similar to her already-known style are Decree and 78% H2O, the latter with its swinging drums played by Ani DiFranco herself. Wurlitzer and synth integrate the nervous narrative of Millennium Theater, with its filtered voices: a track that sounds like a strange version of a "country & western" piece. A wha-wha guitar (or is it a plug-in?) is featured in Half-Assed, while the title-track is a spoken-word piece with acoustic guitar and a grieving double bass, played with the arco. After the very tense A Spade, we are back to the ballads with Unrequited, with its vocal interpretation so rich with feeling; and the closing Shroud, where a very "natural-sounding" voice is a good match for the almost "didactic" tone of the lyrics.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2006 | Aug. 8, 2006