By: Trevor Pour
What else can one write about Ani DiFranco? When an artist approaches the release of her 18th official studio album, history is essentially established. So, what differentiates Red Letter Year (Righteous Babe) from the droves of music that's come before? Surprisingly, quite a bit. This is Ani's first new material since the birth of her daughter, Petah Lucia DiFranco Napolitano, who just may have the greatest name in the history of babies. Her newfound happiness as a mother paired with a strong relationship with her partner and co-producer Mike Napolitano has elicited a notably relaxed and untroubled DiFranco. Additionally, Red Letter Year features a sizable band including prolific percussionist Mike Dillon and the Rebirth Brass Band on select tracks. Taken together, this album may prove to be a major juncture in both DiFranco's personal life and her musical career. As with many artists that have such time-honored histories, fan bases are largely developed and unchanging. Red Letter Year displays a genuine innovation and freshness that may very well invoke a new generation of DiFrano devotees.
While self-reflective lyrics have never been a stranger to DiFranco, tracks like "Present/Infant," "Smiling Underneath" and "Way Tight" display a markedly more mature - and dare I say it - happy Ani. "Present/Infant" juxtaposes the transformative process of raising a young child against the reframing of life's priorities, while the latter two tracks illustrate an honest and healthy perspective on authentic long-term relationships. If this doesn't sound like classic DiFranco, don't be fooled. On the title track, one can hear many of the tonal changes, progressions and minor chords that have long characterized DiFranco's music. Plus, it's politically charged, socially observant and super catchy. I found myself humming the opening tune at work after just a single listen. This is Ani being Ani, at the peak of her abilities. My personal favorite, "The Atom," has the orchestral power of older standards like "Both Hands," while retaining the composed and mature studio sound of this album. Her lyrics are crystal clear and her message both powerful and poetic. Also worthy of mention is "Emancipated Minor," a catchy, up-tempo piece that reflects on the freedom of youth, and most certainly is a moment of reminiscence for Ani as she enters this new stage in her life.
I only recently discovered that the album cover, which displays a full moon, glows in the dark. This is one of many subtle but conscious touches that make Red Letter Year such a success. The liner notes are phenomenal; Printed on quality parchment, the designer makes a clever play on the album title by featuring a Kremlin-inspired font. The lyrics for each track are also printed in varying orientations, broken up to correlate with each song's unique character. Lastly, a small globe with orbiting electrons appears on the back cover, an allusion to the aforementioned track "The Atom." While these details of an album's packaging may seem insignificant at first, it soon becomes apparent that they reflect the high level of care and quality on the very record it holds. Red Letter Year marks the first step into a new realm for DiFranco, and one that we should all be very excited to witness.
Here's Ani with an acoustic performance of "Present/Infant."
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