ANI DIFRANCO: RED LETTER YEAR (2008)
1) Red Letter Year; 2) Alla This; 3) Present/Infant; 4) Smiling Underneath; 5) Way Tight; 6) Emancipated Minor; 7) Good Luck; 8) The Atom; 9) Round A Pole; 10) Landing Gear; 11) Star Matter; 12) Red Letter Year Reprise.
2008 may have been a red letter year for Ani's country, which is what the album title is «subtly» trying to tell us, but for Ani herself that year was 2007, when she had her first baby. With less free time on her hands than usual, yet still not willing to forsake the one-album-per-year routine (God knows what this world will come to if it forgets about her existence for three hundred and sixty five days), she released her first official retrospective package, titled Canon and picturing a cannon (puns! puns! puns!). Despite some predictably lame selections mixed in with the classics, on the general art plane it must have been a good move — not only did the world get to remember what Ms. DiFranco used to be in the good old days, when she would still stoop to using the guitar as an instrument rather than a sonic prop, but it also gave her some breathing space to put a little more work than usual in the next record.
Meaning that Red Letter Year, although not quite reaching up to the pleasantly-mediocre level of Knuckle Down, is at least less generally irritating than Reprieve. With mother cares at hand, she does not have that good an opportunity to focus on her political anger; and with a full band in the studio once again, chances are that not every song is centered around an uninspired, meaningless pummelling of her acoustic six-string. This is not to say that I honestly liked any of the songs. But at least I was honestly indifferent to them rather than honestly desiring to shove them down the songwriter's throat.
The most prominent political curses come at the beginning, but the predictable anti-Bush jabs and troop condolences lose much of their potential obnoxiousness by hiding behind dense arrangements: reverb, echo, chimes, and New Age effects on the title track, U2-ish rebounding guitars on 'Alla This'. After that, the band sincerely tries to introduce teensy bits of diversity on each new track; they never succeed properly, but they do take away Ani's ability to torture the listener. The best song is probably 'The Atom', if you listen to it long enough to appreciate the professionalism of the build-up from minimalistic acoustic mantra to psychedelic freakout — somebody must have been a good fan of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
For me, the best thing about it all is 'Red Letter Year Reprise', which is not so much a reprise as a friendly, loose jazz jam between all concerned. In general, it's just six minutes of poorly coordinated free-form horn noise, but it contains a paradox — it just feels so much more liberating in essence than any single word-containing song on this album, recorded by an artist that is supposed to be the biggest liberator of them all. For this nice, unexpected touch Red Letter Year deserves a hateless thumbs down rather than a hateful one. Also, amazingly, the entire year of 2009 went on by without a new DiFranco album, suggesting that perhaps her newly-found family life is steering her into the right direction, after all.