By Katie Knowlton
On her new album, Red Letter Year, Ani DiFranco sings, “I’ve got myself a new mantra/it says: don’t forget to have a good time.” It is evident on this new disc that she has embraced this new philosophy.
Red Letter Year is DiFranco’s sixteenth studio album on her own label, Righteous Babe Records, and her first new material since 2006’s Reprieve. She previously released a new album every year since 1990, but in 2007 she released her first compilation, a CD of tracks from her old albums.
Musically, Red Letter Year, sounds similar to Reprieve. Despite the fact that on most of the tracks there is a string section, and on a few, brass instrumentation, the songs sound sparse, and that is not a bad thing. Often when artists decide to add strings and other instruments to a song, it leaves them feeling cluttered, like they were thrown in just for the sake of it. But DiFranco’s tracks benefit, these orchestral instruments add much needed dimension to songs that would sound rather bland otherwise.
The brass and strings are also added to some songs to bring a bit of light-heartedness to the tracks. “Emancipated Minor” ends up sounding very similar to “Deep Dish,” from her 1998 album, Little Plastic Castle. These almost playful uses of the instruments on “Emancipated Minor” and “Alla This,” among others, really are what separate the sound of this album from the morose and somber feel of Reprieve. It is the sonic way of applying her “don’t forget to have a good time philosophy.”
A few songs feature synthesizer and optigan work mixed with heavy guitar effects, creating a spacey, almost ambient feel. This is most notable on the title track, “Round A Pole, ” and “The Atom” making the songs sound ethereal and haunting.
Sadly, DiFranco’s signature staccato, finger picking guitar playing style is notably absent throughout most of the album. It can be heard in “Present/Infant” and “The Atom,” but for the most part her guitar work is lost in the mix of so many other instruments. It is a shame that either DiFranco or her producer decided to put the guitar so low in many of the mixes, as DiFranco is one the more talented, and distinctive, folk guitarists of today.
Luckily, DiFranco’s lyrical prowess is on full display in Red Letter Year. And it is most notable here that she is remembering to have a good time. On Reprieve, DiFranco crafted what was lyrically a dark and solemn album, by her standards. It was full of criticisms of the government and of people failing to notice what is going on around the world.
Red Letter Year still has these moments of criticism and calls for people to pay attention to the world around them. On the title track she sings, “And representing the white race/a man with a monkey for a face/is flying over in a helicopter/whistling Dixie and playing dumb.” The line is an obvious shot at President Bush. She goes on in that same song to show a yearning for television to finally broadcast the truth, and invites the listener to “pull up a barstool/and get ourselves a ringside seat” for this moment.
“Alla This” is also one of the more politically oriented songs on the album. DiFranco sings of her fight to keep herself independent. Independent from what is up to interpretation. There are strong hints that she is referring to the corrupt culture of America by saying “I am consciousness without identity” and “I won’t sell my brain/I won’t pray to a male god/cuz that would just be insane.” Regardless, her strong words resonate for a variety of reasons and causes.
The new mentality and philosophy DiFranco is touting is lyrically evident in many of the songs. Some of this can be attributed to the birth of her daughter in early 2007. In the song “Present/Infant” she sings of the change having a child has brought to her life. She begins to “see some problems/with the ongoing work of my mind” a nod to darkness of Reprieve as well as her private mental state. “Smiling Underneath” is almost stereotypical in its optimism, describing various unfortunate situations (spilling hot sauce on a white shirt, for instance), but everything is all right as long as she is with her love. That is the only problem with this newfound happiness, it brings predictability to a few of DiFranco’s new tracks, which is a disappointment. If it were not for the interesting instrumentation, those songs would sound more at home on the album of a run-of-the-mill, forgettable singer-songwriter.
Still, Red Letter Year, is a strong album, with a few lyrical missteps. Any DiFranco fan should pick this up when it is released on September 30, as should anyone looking to try something new in a time when many artists sound the same.