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Ani DiFranco: The Folk Poet Of Buffalo

3 minute read
Christopher John Farley

The first song on singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco’s new album, Little Plastic Castle, starts off with a jolt. We’ve come to expect shocks from DiFranco–she’s a rock maverick, a singer who owns her own label (Righteous Babe Records of Buffalo, New York), who refuses to sign to a major record company and who performs often raucous punk-folk songs about music-industry greed, abortion and her own bisexuality. DiFranco is so fiercely protective of her work that she was miffed when a recent cover of one of her songs, 32 Flavors, by newcomer Alana Davis added a few lyrics (Davis’ rendition, by the way, is terrific). But what’s truly surprising about the first track on DiFranco’s new album, which is also the title song, is just how good-natured and downright jaunty it is. After the first verse, DiFranco lets loose a country-and-western “yee-haw” and a wave of gentle ska-infused horns kicks in. It’s an early signal: this is an album that refuses to be boxed in.

Both the music and the words on Little Plastic Castle seem unfettered and fluid. There’s a jokey, poetry-slam freedom to DiFranco’s lyrics here that is reminiscent of some of Bob Dylan’s freewheelin’, socially conscious early work. In one song, Fuel, DiFranco starts off with a pointed political observation–“They were digging a new foundation in Manhattan/ and they discovered a slave cemetery there/ may their souls rest easy now that lynching is frowned upon/ and we’ve moved on to the electric chair”–and then shifts easily to an image of digging deeper to uncover cultural truths “beneath the traffic of friendships and street deals/ beneath the screeching of kamikaze cab wheels.” It’s a smart offering that rests comfortably in the penumbra between spoken word and song.

DiFranco, however, has not forgotten how to rock. Gravel is powered by chugging, chunky guitar work that pulls you in and pushes the tune along. It’s a cry of independence, of sorts, from an overbearing lover. “Maybe you can keep me from ever being happy,” she sings, “but you’re not going to stop me/ from having fun.” In Loom DiFranco again unleashes kinetic guitar riffs. And again the theme is intrusive love: “You are the one-way glass/ that watches me/ standing at the bank.”

One of the weakest tracks on the album is one of the most daring–the spooky-sounding Deep Dish. It’s a song that eventually grows on you a bit, but at first listen it sounds harsh and weird, with bleating horns and obscure spoken breaks that feature lines like “this is only a possibility in a world of possibilities/ there are, obviously, there are many possibilities.” It’s all very courageous but also very clunky.

DiFranco takes another chance–one that works–on Pulse, a sliding, slippery jazz-folk number that stretches on for 14 minutes. On the whole, Little Plastic Castle is a sharp, indulgent, fascinating album, the kind that an artist can probably release only when he or she owns the record company. Let’s hope DiFranco never signs with anyone but herself.

–By Christopher John Farley

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