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Every new album from Ani DiFranco gives listeners a reason to get excited about music all over again, and her latest, Reprieve, is certainly no exception. Across 12 tracks, DiFranco ignites more of her signature blend of poetry, politics and musicianship. Ani and touring bassist Todd Sickafoose are the only two players on the new album - something you'd never guess from it's rich and detailed sound. In addition to the usual array of acoustic and electric guitars, Ani can be heard on keyboards, drums, and other instruments, while Todd contributes bass, wurlitzer, pump organ, piano and "fakey-bakey" trumpet and strings. The album was tracked in her New Orleans studio in early 2005 during a break in her usually heavy touring schedule. Forced to leave the master recordings behind before Hurricane Katrina, she drove back into the city to retrieve them just three days after the levees broke. From there she headed back to overdub in her hometown of Buffalo with whatever instruments happened to be on hand.
Given these tumultuous times, one would expect Ani DiFranco to confront strife head-on, but on this, her 18th album, she tunnels beneath the headlines toward deeper emotional, psychic, and institutional conflicts and causes. She begins by channeling her inner Joni Mitchell, pouring out a quartet of jazzy confessions lightly dusted with electronica, musique concrete, and keyboard drone, but urged forward by Todd Sickafoose's warm acoustic bass. His throbbing, be-bop lines are this spare but somehow atmospheric album's musical soul. As DiFranco's voice bobs and weaves around those rhythms, the personal poetry makes the politics hit harder--and vice versa. She celebrates marginalia and makes peace with a world in flux. She conveys the heat of across-the-café infatuations and grows anxious over her subconscious desires. When she locks her sights on contemporary culture, she sends a scattershot spray against celebrity cults, network news, biotechnology, Yucca Mountain, stolen elections and, of course, patriarchy. But she's a gifted enough poet and musician to keep the album from collapsing into radical rhetoric and psychobabble. The spoken-word title track begins in Hiroshima and ends in a declaration that feminism is not about equality but about "reprieve"--an amnesty from fear and hate, in other words, and an affirmation of life. In the context of a death-driven culture, her decision to bear children, "to split herself in two," becomes the most "radical thing you can do." None of her manifestos, however, would ring true if it weren't for her imaginative, even playful singing and her ever-more accomplished acoustic guitar playing, sometimes classically graceful, sometimes purely urgent. --Roy Kasten
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Romance has never ranked high on Difranco's list of musical agendas, but opening track "Hypnotized" articulates a love story complete with her own wistful, unorthodox style, as she and a handsome stranger suddenly enrapture each other in a country where she does not speak the language. She also nails the feeling of an unhealthy, near-obsessive relationship in "Nicotine," where she cannot help but keep second guessing herself, chiming "you sang that song in my ear, and it tickled those tiny hairs."
The most anthemic moments of the disc, however, are where she wages sharp, articulate criticism on American government and culture, complete with evidence for support. In "Decree," she damns "network yes men" and "the sexed-up strobe of celebrity" for manipulating a vulnerable public, concluding that "the stars are going out, and the stripes are getting bent." In "Millennium Theater," however, she really cuts to the throat of it all.
"Halliburton, Enron/Chief justices for sale/Yucca mountain goddesses/Their tears they form a trail/Trickle down pollution/Patriarchies realign/While the ice caps melt/And New Orleans bides her time."
Further selections glisten and sparkle. Difranco articulates in "Half-Assed" how elusive genuine, unobliterated beauty is, while in "78% H20" she can no longer handle a high maintenance relationship, predicting that the satisfaction will "go from more than ever to not enough in no time." Also, she wisely states in "Unrequited" that if there's one thing she can't understand, "it's the urge to kill something beautiful just to hang it on your wall," while she wistful realizes throughout "In the Margins" just how small she is in the scope of the world.
The most remarkable moment on the disc, however, is the spoken-word title track where she not only foreshadows her then-unknown pregnancy but defends the very essence of what it is to be a woman.
"But when all of nature conspires to make me her glorious whore/It's `cause in my body I hold the secret recipe of precisely what life is for/And the patriarchy that looks to shame me for it is the same one making war."
Difranco is not only a woman, but more of a man than most men will ever be. "Reprieve" is simply the most up-to-date piece of evidence to support that fact.
DiFranco's as famous for her shaved head, pierced and tattooed look as for her anthemic woman-power tunes such as "Gratitude", "Not A Pretty Girl", "Little Plastic Castles", and "The Next Big Thing." She's made a career out of brash, uneven vocals, fast guitar licks, and digs at the existing power structure. As if being pigeon-holed by the music industry, the media, and men in power isn't enough, she also gets put in a box by fans who expect her to be the same old Ani, over and over. (She famously alienated a sizable part of her grassroots following when she married a man.)
DiFranco's look is softer now, and so is this album. Not soft in a wishy-washy way, but the softness of a musician who knows her power and when to hold it in check.
Reprieve is polished and melodic. The album's rhythm amazing, especially when you consider that there are no drums, just Ani's voice, her guitar, and Todd Sickafoose's soulful acoustic bass. (Sickafoose signed on for DiFranco's 2004 second DVD, Trust, as well as her 2005 album, Knuckle Down.)
There are lots of gorgeous moments on this album and lines that stick in your ear long after your CD player turns off. Tracks "78% H20", "Unrequited", and "In The Margins" are heartbreaking with ironic lyrics and an unadorned arrangement that allows the emotional honesty to come through. "Subconscious" examines how past mistakes can put us on a truer path. DiFranco's political and social anger toward corporate and political corruption in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina leaps out aggressively in "Millennium Theater" and "Decree." "A Spade" talks about harmony between the sexes and the end of global war.
Reprieve's most startlingly beautiful moment comes in its title track, a spoken word number about pro-choice, pro-sex feminism: "to split yourself in two / is just the most radical thing you can do / so girl if that...ain't up to you / then you simply are not free." DiFranco goes on to say "feminism ain't about equality / it's about reprieve," and this album is a welcome one.
So rambling aside, I really recommend this new album. Even though I refer to it as a return to basics, it isn't like anything she's released before. Ani is forever morphing, yet keeping so much about her the same. Isn't that why we keep coming back for more?
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