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|3. in the margins|
|6. 78% H2O|
|7. millennium theater|
|10. a spade|
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