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Ani DiFranco Is Back With Red Letter Year

Observer Scene | Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ani DiFranco is back.

Granted, she hasn’t really gone anywhere – her new release, “Red Letter Year,” is her most recent release on her independent label – Righteous Babe Records – and her 18th studio album in as many years. Still, “Red Letter Year” is DiFranco’s first album after giving birth to her daughter, Petah, with partner and producer Mike Napolitano, and it feels like a renewal for the singer-songwriter. As she said recently in a press release accompanying the album, “I’ve got myself a new mantra … it says ‘Don’t forget to have a good time.'”

DiFranco herself has looked to the birth of her daughter as a new beginning.

“I heard a quote once that the world is reborn every time a new baby is born,” she recently said. “That’s how I feel around Petah. ‘This is no longer my world. This is your world. Show me how cool it can be.'”

For those who are new to DiFranco and her music, here’s a brief biography. A Buffalo, N.Y., native, DiFranco has made a name for herself through her independently produced songwriting. In addition to her studio albums, she has released several live albums, three EPs and two volumes of poetry. Often engaging in various social and cultural issues in her songwriting, her music is generally guitar-based and powerfully written. Openly bisexual, DiFranco was married in the late nineties to sound tech Andrew Gilchrist, and has been with Napolitano for several years.

DiFranco has made a career on songs of intellectual discourse, sexuality, feminism and politics, and “Red Letter Year” is no exception to her pattern, particularly on tracks like “Emancipated Minor.” Time will tell as to the impact of motherhood on DiFranco’s style and sensibility, but any earth mother tendencies feel well incorporated into her style on this album. She also cites the influence of New Orleans and its many musical styles in this album, including help from the Rebirth Brass Band (particularly on the album’s final track, the delightful “Red Letter Year Reprise”), C.C. Adcock and pedal steel player Richard Comeaux. Napolitano has also produced for artists like the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Joseph Arthur.

The title track, “Red Letter Year,” opens the album and has a somewhat minor tone. DiFranco opens strong with powerful vocals, a slight electronic edge to the guitar and an effective use of piano. The song nods wryly to the sense of renewal with lines like, “They didn’t mention how much sh*t was gonna change around here.” Later, she sings, “when you wake up sick as a dog/With dull eyes and really bad hair… and the water is rising/And it’s coming in everywhere/Just remember you were there/You were always there.” She plays with sound sensibilities here, incorporating different effects into the recording. The track also ends on an unexpected note of guitar with shades of orchestration.

“Alla This,” the second track, reasserts DiFranco’s feminist ideals. “I will not stand immersed in this ultraviolet curse/I won’t let you make a tool of me/I will keep my mind and body free.” It’s clear with “Alla This” that female singer-songwriters in her wake, such as Alanis Morissette, have taken a few leaves from the Ani DiFranco book of songwriting. The song’s “stick-it-to-the-man” feel is empowering, especially in light of DiFranco’s new motherhood.

For a new listener, DiFranco’s vocal style might seem off-putting. Her vocals, like “Red Letter Year” itself, have a funny habit of growing on you with additional listens. Tracks like “Round A Pole” are surprisingly better the second or third time around.

Other solid songs include “The Atom,” with its use of the Indian sitar in the background; “Present Infant,” with its sweet mom-daughter themes; “Landing Gear,” with its catchy beat and casual vibe; and “Red Letter Year Reprise,” an unexpected six minutes of Nola flair to close the album.

“Red Letter Year” will be released in stores on September 30.

Contact Analise Lipari at alipari@nd.edu.