To the Teeth
(Righteous Babe Records)
In her rise to independently wrought stardom, Ani DiFranco created a sound and a persona designed for maximum impact. She may have gently dubbed herself "the little folksinger," but to everyone else, she became that punked-out bisexual with the hard-strummed acoustic guitar. Her songs actualized her fans' fantasies of danger, be it a girl-girl kiss or doped-up lover. Ani DiFranco lived the life, and her fans lived DiFranco's life. But hell-bent on proving how tough it was to be Ani all alone, she fell victim to the shortfalls one faces when following the DIY ethos: She tried to do too much by herself. She was the band -- combining melody, rhythm, and message in her strong voice and that hard strum -- and while the sound was distinctive, it also got old fast. So while her vision was admirable, and she provided an excellent example to autonomous entrepreneurs, her appeal was limited to the nonacolyte. DiFranco was never afraid of repeating herself; thus, you could make due with just one album or even a handful of songs.
True, there are tracks on To the Teeth that recall earlier efforts. DiFranco led Up Up Up Up Up Up with a song that described running away with the circus; on To the Teeth she's further exiled to the "Freakshow." The looped banjo of "The Arrivals Gate" was heard on the last album's "Angry Anymore." Such instrumental touches have developed from experiments into key elements of DiFranco's music. This clearly is the work of a band, and it allows DiFranco to expand her sound. Keyboards -- Wurlitzers, organs, clavinets -- now are ubiquitous, and tasteful brass arrangements for saxophone, trombone, tuba, and trumpet grace a number of the tracks, providing songs like "Going Once," "Back Back Back," and "Swing" with a jazzy edge, as well as giving DiFranco an opportunity to stretch her vocal delivery with subtle scat and a torch singer style. Best of all the guitar isn't forced to carry the rhythm of these songs.
To a degree To the Teeth represents an overall shift to whispers. Perhaps figuring out that she's succeeded in crafting the image and building the brand, DiFranco has decided it's all right to be subtle sometimes, even soft. "Hello, Birmingham," "Soft Shoulder," "Providence," and the title track get by on atmospherics as much as they do on dynamics and dramatics, a necessity considering that DiFranco's songs now regularly break the six-minute mark. She also has become a little less insistent on making herself the focus of all her songs. In the past when DiFranco sang about her friends, the state of the union, and fame's expectations, the tunes always revolved around how she felt about it. Perhaps she shouldn't have explicitly invoked Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and implicitly invoked James Baldwin ("Open fire on Hollywood/Open fire on MTV") on this album, but at least the narrator's identity is now a little less clear-cut.
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As far as DiFranco's lyrical concerns are concerned, sometimes the subject matter is still hackneyed (teen gun violence, feeling like an outsider, supporting abortion rights). But even when the subjects are old hat, the lyrics themselves are not, offering neat turns of phrase and always showcasing DiFranco's skill at holding out information and making the listener hang on until a melody resolves. Yes, you may feel mildly cheated when she rhymes "sad" with "mad," but when she posits that teen gunmen suffer from "milk-fed suburban blues" you'll listen for the "news." The current condition of DiFranco's impressive and ever-improving body of work is summed up in the album's last tune: "I know this song/With this one really killer line/I don't remember it exactly/But it slays me every time." -- Alec Hanley Bemis