From the start of "Hypnotized", the opening track on Ani DiFranco's latest album, Reprieve Review: Music: Ani DiFranco: Reprieve, 2006 (Righteous Babe, 2006) you sense an artist slightly out of step and at odds with the world around her, even with those who love her: "I was no picnic / I was no prize / but I had just enough sweetness / to keep you hypnotized." That quote says it all...love Ani or hate her, she's a DIY phenomenon. You have to give her props for doing it the hard way--her own way. She's toured constantly for 16 years, turned out 20 albums (live and studio), 2 DVDs, and 3 EPs, and repeatedly turned down major label deals to run her own label, Righteous Babe.
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.