"I've got myself a new mantra," Ani DiFranco shares on her new studio album. "It says ‘Don't forget to have a good time.'" This attitude has clearly influenced the dozen tunes on Red Letter Year, which celebrate existence, profess love and tackle thorny political issues with an infectious sense of glee. It's one of Ani's most joyous records to date.
And it has been a long time coming. Red Letter Year was sculpted over the course of two years, a period in which Ani continued to hone her songwriting, performing and recording skills, all the while balancing her new role as a mom. "I think I sorely needed to be slowed down, and finally a little person came along powerful enough to do it," Ani reflects. The end result is an album of focused, layered, panoramic music.
"When I listen to my new record, I hear a very relaxed me, which I think has been absent in a lot of my recorded canon," Ani explains. "Now I feel like I'm in a really good place. My partner Mike Napolitano co-produced this record - my guitar and voice have never sounded better, and that's because of him. I've got this great band and crew. And my baby, she teaches me how to just be in my skin, to do less and be more."
Ani's band - upright bassist Todd Sickafoose, vibraphonist/percussionist Mike Dillon and drummer Allison Miller, is a major source of Red Letter Year's singular personality. On "Emancipated Minor," Miller's driving beat tethers to
Ani's killer electric guitar hook, while Sickafoose's bass adds the perfect counterpoint to Ani's acoustic guitar work on "Way Tight". And on "Alla This," Dillon's vibes are as rich and open-minded as Ani's defiant, anthemic lyrics.
Add to the inspired, re-invigorated Ani the uncanny production skills of Napolitano (Joseph Arthur, The Twilight Singers, Squirrel Nut Zippers), the otherworldly string arrangements of long time collaborator Sickafoose, and the inspired playing of guests such as Jon Hassell on trumpet (Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Ry Cooder), and you've got the makings of a DiFranco classic.
And Ani's songwriting is up to the challenge, reflecting her place in life with warmth and clarity. Highlights include "Smiling Underneath," a rumination on love's power to make everything better, the achingly beautiful ballad "Way Tight" and "Alla This," a quintessential Ani anthem full of brave statements like "I won't pray to a male god/cuz that would be insane."
If there's a fourth band member on Red Letter Year, it's New Orleans, LA. The Crescent City has become Ani's second home and favorite place to record, and its cultural and spiritual wealth is in this album's bones. Louisiana artists are all over these recordings, including the Rebirth Brass Band - the stars of "Red Letter Year Reprise" - pedal steel player Richard Comeaux and Lafayette's own C.C. Adcock (Bo Diddley, Buckwheat Zydeco).
But for all the cultural influences, eloquent statements and captivating melodies that inhabit this album like a friendly Louisiana neighborhood, nothing encapsulates its overall meaning like the warm, united laughter that concludes it.
"I have this subconscious bent to open the curtains all the time, and let people see into the process and the time and place," Ani muses. "I think that's what's behind all those little moments of talking or laughter that seep onto the records. I'm out in the world and back in my happy self, ready to have a party."
Ani DiFranco's feeling good, and she's in a giving mood - Red Letter Year isn't just a party, it's a music lover's gift.