CD Review of Red Letter Year by Ani DiFranco
Recommended if you like
Patti Larkin, Joni Mitchell,
Suzanne Vega
Label
Righteous babe
Ani DiFranco: Red Letter Year

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

O
ver the course of her career, Ani DiFranco has presented herself as the ultimate overachiever. Artist, activist, entrepreneur and insurgent, she’s become a standard bearer for feminist affirmation and DIY empowerment, and for the better part of the last 20 years, she’s helped recast the notion of a modern folk troubadour, singing songs that not only spring from her experience as a bisexual woman and freewheeling social advocate, but also help to inspire those who have been ostracized, alienated and relegated to the fringes of society. Along the way, DiFranco has compiled nineteen albums on her own aptly-named Righteous Babe label, the latest of which, Red Letter Year, follows on the heels of a career-spanning anthology and live concert DVD.

With such a prodigious output, one might wonder what else she could add to her ongoing opining. However, in recent years, DiFranco seems to have mellowed somewhat, thanks to the calming influences of a steady mate and a new baby born in early ’07.  Consequently, Red Letter Year took two years to craft, an eternity compared to the rapid-fire release schedule of her previous work. It also provides something of a new beginning, one that reflects a less edgy, less tempestuous attitude. Opening the album with the slow meandering drift of the title track, she offers first hints of a new, unhurried approach. “It’s just that we weren’t swollen with unfocused dread / We had visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads,” she sings somewhat contentedly. “Present/Infant” follows suit, conveying an air of ease with present circumstance, as evidenced in her declaration, “I’ve got myself a new mantra / It says: don’t forget to have a good time!” Elsewhere, her melodies weave a seductive spell – in the mellow drift of “Star Matter,” the ethereal, atmospheric “The Atom,” the quiet, lilting “Way Tight” and the sensual sway of “Good Luck” in particular.  She even dares to dabble in some frivolous fanfare, purveyed in the ragtime instrumental “Red Letter Year Reprise,” the album’s feel-good send-off.

Still, a less irascible DiFranco doesn’t mean she’s any less incorrigible. “Alla This” and “Smiling Underneath” coast above a tangle of instrumental undertow, while “Round a Pole” and “Emancipated Minor” find her stretching her boundaries with fluid, freewheeling tempos which tug at the peripheries. And being that this is an election year, political commentary also enters the fray. Still, lacking her contentious attitude, DiFranco has recast herself as an artist who’s daring, yet no longer defiant, one whose work invites investigation without recrimination. If Red Letter Year isn’t her best album to date, it’s certainly her most approachable.

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