Provocative and thoughtful go hand in hand when it comes to music by folk songstress Ani DiFranco.
But on her latest release, “Red Letter Year” (Righteous Babe), she elevates her creative forte to a new plateau.
Red Letter Year
(Righteous Babe; US: 30 Sep 2008; UK: 29 Sep 2008)
“Red Letter Year” reveals a course change in DiFranco’s music. Whereas her previous recent releases, “Reprieve” (2006), “Knuckle Down” (2005) and “Educated Guess” (2004), possessed an inward-looking quality, the latest effort exhibits a more expansive air. The album came about after two years of writing, also marking a break in DiFranco’s normally driven pace, which has yielded 16 studio albums, three live records, a two-disc retrospective, several official live bootlegs and a range of collaborations since her debut in 1990.
“I do think of it as a new era,” said DiFranco. “It would be hard for me to explain that scientifically. It’s just an intuitive notion. I feel like I’ve transformed as a person. My entry into motherhood is certainly a big part of it. ... I have a new band. I have a new co-producer to work with creatively, and a new songwriting strategy of sorts. I’m try to come at liberation from a different angle.”
With “Red Letter Year,” DiFranco and company (bassist Todd Sickafoose, drummer Allison Miller, vibraphonist Mike Dillon and producer Mike Napolitano) have produced a sonically diverse masterpiece that teems with heart, energy and atmosphere.
The album kicks off with the weighty title track dedicated to a city still afflicted three years after a devastating natural catastrophe.
“That song is set in New Orleans,” confirmed DiFranco. “I feel like New Orleans took a hit for the country. It was really the fall of New Orleans that made people finally begin to stand up and criticize the (Bush) administration. It’s shocking to even say that or remember that now. ... I feel like New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, Katrina, was a turning point of awareness for people. That’s the turning point that sets the album off in a new direction, in whatever way.”
Rhythmic muscle bolsters a declaration of free will on the ensuing “Alla This,” while the tender “Present/Infant” provides a breezy take on motherhood. Another engaging tune, “Good Luck,” employs robust sonic splashes to punctuate a stirring tenor. It also sets the playlist table beautifully for the album’s most riveting number, “The Atom.”
“The Atom” rides an alluring ethereal vibe that builds to a rousing passionate crescendo, and delivers a piercing meditation about the miracle of the smallest unit of matter and the risky consequences that come with exploiting its power.
“‘The Atom’ is one of my more favorite pieces of writing that I’ve done recently,” said DiFranco. “It’s sort of a political criticism in the light of our humanity, of our fundamental nature. It’s about how we revel in what’s real and draw our power from that, rather than try to pit our power against it.”
A stylistic mix follows “The Atom,” including “Round of Pole,” in which DiFranco serves up a bluesy feel accented by a raspy vocal touch. “I had a little bit of intention to sing it that way, without any delicacy,” added DiFranco.
The album wraps up with a buoyant 6-minute-plus New Orleans jazz-inspired instrumental reprieve of the opening track.
DiFranco typically practices a very hands-on approach to her music. But this time around, she relaxed the production reigns a bit while working with Napolitano, the father of her child, whom she also married earlier this year.
“It was challenging for me to really let him co-produce,” recalled DiFranco. “His process is very different from mine. It was interesting, not just being a couple, but we’ve had a lot of aesthetic debates over the years. ... I actually feel kind of proud of myself for being so open and allowing myself to go down his winding path and seeing where it led.”
A strong progressive spirit has long guided DiFranco’s social outlook and music. In recent years, she often found herself at odds with the conservative shift in the country’s mindset following 9-11.
With the election of President Barack Obama, she believes there’s a chance to break from the political polarization and bickering that has beleaguered the national discourse.
“My one great desire now is that we can really step away from our knee-jerk tendency towards criticism and mistrust of the government and politicians, and understand that with Obama we’re in a very different situation,” said DiFranco. “If we can rise to the occasion and do what he’s asking of us, which is to come together and work on common goals for the common good, we could really make a change.”
Change came to DiFranco’s life well before the presidential election, with the arrival of her daughter, Petah, in January 2007. Although she continues to work on new material, DiFranco is quite content to temper her music pursuits for the moment, and attend to her parental role.
“I am a woman who has spent 20 years dedicating myself to my work, wholly and then some,” said the 38-year-old singer-songwriter. “So, I’m more than happy to dedicate myself to a kid, as opposed to maybe another woman who hasn’t had enough time for herself of her own work. I feel like I have the best of both worlds.
“There’s nothing like happiness for momentum. It really does propel all of us.”