Ani DiFranco
Red Letter Year

(Righteous Babe)

Two years since her last record is something really unusual for an artist like Ani DiFranco. To tell the truth, silence had not been complete: a "Best Of", the double CD Canon (2007), had been released, acting as a career summation of sorts; while the recent DVD-V recorded in concert, Live In Babeville, had introduced her new group; but what about a brand-new album?

Meanwhile, there had been new facts of great importance in her life. A new partner, Mike Napolitano, whose technical contribution to her previous album had been of great relevance for its artistic success (Napolitano co-produced, recorded, and mixed Red Letter Year). Also, the birth of her daughter.

It goes without saying that more than a few US reviewers could not escape the temptation to see the new album in light of her recent biography, citing the songs' lyrics, a certain "relaxed" vocal approach, and the whole mood of the album - decidedly less tense, and a lot more "communicative" than in the past, with a few moments that one could easily define as being "commercial" - to Ani DiFranco's new happy status.

Which is fine by me. But I'll also mention the Carpal Tunnel Syndrome DiFranco talked about three years ago as an element that has been crucial in shaping the new album. Sure, technical things don't seem to matter much anymore to most people who write about music, especially when the artist in question is a woman who can be easily reduced to the familiar "girl with guitar" stereotype. But Ani DiFranco has been a guitar player whose accents and rests have been of crucial importance to all musicians playing with her.

Let's just think about Keith Richards's guitar, so closely followed by Charlie Watts's drums, and the whole group. In a sense that's so different, yet in a way quite similar, let's think about the Who's rhythm section playing "around" Pete Townshend's guitar. Let's now factor the other important point here: the personal way vocals and guitar interact for somebody backing him/herself (think: Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix, and all those blues- and folk-singers), and the "call and response" approach that's so individual to those musicians.

It's these elements that act as the common trait that links such disparate albums as Evolve (2003, her last with her old group), the solo (overdubbed) Educated Guess (2004), the almost "cow punk" and "alt. country", with band and producer, Knuckle Down (2005), and Reprieve (2006), a duo with excellent bass player Todd Sickafoose. While on Red Letter Year the guitar plays an important role, but mostly acts as a "backing" element, or as a colour, sometimes even being absent.

Which brings us to the question, Where's One?, and Who Plays One? Which sees DiFranco change quite a bit her vocal approach, and her phrasing, which are now a lot more "normal" and "commercial" (here meaning: "accessible") than they have been in the past. You can tell it's her, but she's different now. So I definitely expect that for many fans listening to Red Letter Year could be quite a surprise. Fact is, with this album Ani DiFranco has changed quite radically. Whether for the better or for the worse - and whether the new album will reveal to be a transitional one, or a dead-end street - only time will tell.

We obviously find those main characters from her previous album. Having already mentioned Napolitano and DiFranco, I'll say that I was quite surprised to find an excellent double bass player like Sickafoose often playing the electric bass, whose notes here are quite often not really easy to hear; but this is a production choice (whether it's a good one is something one will have to decide for oneself), where bass and drums are often a "presence". We have the other members of her new trio, drummer Allison Miller and percussionist (marimba, vibraphone, tubular bells, etc.) Mike Dillon. There are also some guests, here I'll mention CC Adcock on electric guitar, Richard Comeaux on pedal steel, and Animal Prufrock on piano. The most unusual ingredient here is maybe a string quartet (Jenny Scheinman, violin; Megan Gould, violin; Jessica Troy, viola; Marika Hughes, cello), whose work (arranged by Sickafoose, recorded by Tony Maimone), appearing on many tracks, though clearly audible, works more as a kind of colour and texture, and not as a co-protagonist.

Red Letter Year opens the album just like if things were the same as before: an acoustic guitar in the right channel, the winds of the Rebirth Brass Band in the left channel, it starts as a typical DiFranco ballad; but soon the electric bass and the compressed drums, vocals treated with unusual echoes, the piano (played by Sickafoose) playing those arpeggios that in the past the acoustic guitar played, the marimba, the string quartet, all tell of a different story. There's a nice bridge working as a "splice", with winds and a "grainy" recorded sound.

An electric guitar starts Alla This, the first track on the album that really sounds "different". Just like on other tracks here, vocals are not really loud, apparent loudness being the fruit of equalization. The rhythm section here has a "modern" sound, strings here being quite "epic-sounding", like in a movie soundtrack.

Present/Infant is a nice ballad with acoustic guitar and vibes, then come the rhythm section, the electric guitar and the pedal steel. Nice vocal performance by DiFranco.

Smiling Underneath is a "commercial ballad" that could be a hit (and so, one of those songs that are often played at weddings) when sung by a more "conventionally pleasing" vocalist such as Sheryl Crow or Jewel. To me it sounds like a kind of "modern Nashville", with its classic melodic development, and those sounds, which would not sound out of place on an album by Fiona Apple, or Sarah McLachlan.

Way Tight is a "jazzy", "old-style", ballad featuring acoustic guitar, double bass, pedal steel, and vibes, a good track.

Many join forces (percussion, vocals, "symphonic" strings, etc.) on Emancipated Minor, which reminded me a lot of Prince. It's a nice track, but to me it sounds a bit tired, those climates having already been investigated by DiFranco in the past.

Good Luck is another ballad, which makes use of a changing arrangement, which (maybe unwisely) stresses its sounding as a composite of different songs. Guitar-synth, rhythm section, string quartet playing pizzicato, vibes, percussion, and a very elegant rimshot.

On one of her previous albums it could have been a "spoken" piece, here The Atom has a kind of "raga rock" arrangement, with the double bass played arco producing harmonics, vibes, string quartet, tympani, and vocals occupying center stage (of course).

Double bass, drums, and keyboards (a Wurlitzer electric piano and a synth, both played by DiFranco) are featured on Round A Pole, a "jazzy" track that here sounds just as "out of place" as Blue Motel Room sounded on Hejira. Quite peculiar vocals, hitting high notes.

Landing Gear is almost a bossa which get a kind of "campfire" atmosphere by the presence of the ukelele. Electric bass, drums, pedal steel, and synth are featured, with a nice vocal performance.

With a mood that's almost like a miniature version of In A Silent Way, Star Matter features Jon Hassell's trumpet, double bass, guitar, and vocals.

In closing, a happy-sounding jam, New Orleans-style, performed by the Rebirth Brass Band, with nice tuba and snare drum, communicating contagious happiness.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2008 | Oct. 23, 2008