Ani DiFranco’s new style

For those of you who think you know Ani DiFranco, you might describe her as an angry feminist, a controversial bisexual, or just another depressed rocker chick. And you’re right. In fact, these are the qualities that have won her a worldwide fan base and eight Grammy nominations.

So when I put on my headphones at the bus stop Saturday morning, I expected to feel even crappier than my already rain-induced depression. After all, on previous Ani records, she typically ranted about the failures of society, abuse, maybe slipping in a political statement or two. Which is why it came as such a surprise to hear “Smiling Underneath” come up on my iPod. In it, Ani croons, “I don’t care if every last person here/is ugly and rude/long as I’m with you/I’ve got a good attitude/long as I’m with you.” Slightly shocked to hear such a carefree Ani, I pondered the reason for such a complete change of mindset from her previous works about death and destruction.

All signs point to her one-year-old daughter, Petah Lucia, as the muse behind Red Letter Year. “I think I sorely needed to be slowed down, and finally a little person came along powerful enough to do it,” Ani reflected in an interview with her record label, Righteous Babe Records.

Red Letter Year centers on themes of love, family, and home. Ani appears very relaxed, taking a break from tackling social issues to focus on her personal happiness. On the album, Ani recognizes the beauty of the world and celebrates love.

The track “Present Infant” pretty much sums up the feel of Ani’s new album, and her new outlook on life as a whole. The song is, obviously, about her daughter. But one line in particular stands out: “And I’ve got myself a new mantra/It says: don’t forget to have a good time!”

Of course, no Ani album would be complete without an anthem filled with brave statements like, “I won’t pray to a male god/cuz that would be insane.” “Alla This” fulfills this requirement without being overly dramatic.

Something must be said about the instrumentals on Red Letter Year as well. Ani’s band consists of bassist Todd Sickafoose, vibraphonist/percussionist Mike Dillon, and drummer Allison Miller. (Ani plays her own guitar.) They, along with Louisiana artists like the Rebirth Brass Band, create charming melodies that give the album an overall warm feel. “Emancipated Teenager” is comparable to the fast, horn-heavy jazz of “Deep Dish” from 1998’s Little Plastic Castle but with synths and a string section. The strings are also a focus on other tracks, including “Good Luck” and “The Atom.”

The album was constructed over the course of two years, by far the longest amount of time Ani has ever spent on one record. As a result, Ani has had time to hone her songwriting, and refine her sound to make Red Letter Year her most mature album to date.

While Red Letter Year may differ from Ani’s previous albums, the point in fact still remains that every song is evocative. When you listen to her music, it’s impossible not to feel like you know her. Her songwriting talent is supreme. After listening to an Ani album, it feels as if you’d just had a conversation with her. And Red Letter Year delivers.

So while I’ll admit I missed hearing her little stabs at George Dubya (although she couldn’t resist on the title track, singing about a “man with a monkey for a face” representing the white race) or her radical statements about being a warrior for women’s rights, listening to Red Letter Year gave me an unexpected boost I needed after getting caught in torrential downpour while waiting for the always-tardy 59U. Thanks, Ani.