An altogether accomplished album.
Michael Quinn 2008-10-10
Red Letter Year has been two years in the making, the longest gestation of any of the self-styled ''righteous babe' DiFranco's 19 previous albums. And the time spent getting it to reflect the singer-songwriter's new mantra – ''Don't forget to have a good time'' – has been that rarest of things, an investment actually worth making.
Frank, forthright and fashioned with care, it casts DiFranco in a surprisingly relaxed frame of mind, one decidedly at odds with her take-no-prisoners reputation. Which is not to suggest that her trademark feistiness has been sacrificed at the altar of post-natal, domestic cosiness. Though DiFranco's new baby gets some credit from its musical mum for her newfound ''do less and be more''-ness, due acknowledgement is also paid to partner and co-producer Mike Napolitano and her regular accompanists.
Landing Gear and Present/Infant offer insights into DiFranco's reaction to giving birth and the rewards of motherhood, an emotional transformation underlined by Smiling Underneath's wistful accommodation of growing old.
But if life at home seems blissful, DiFranco's perspective on the world outside of it is markedly more dyspeptic. In Alla This, she takes vitriolic swipes at the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and at religious fundamentalism, while The Atom makes plain her loathing for ''the pure science of boom''. And although title track Red Letter Year may start with mushroom-induced dancing on New Year's Eve, it’s early glee is swept away by her reaction to the devastation wreaked on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and the inadequate responses of ''a man with a monkey for a face''. No prizes for guessing who that might be.
Red Letter Year marks what may well be a significant turning point for DiFranco, and in its meticulously crafted production it also makes a strong claim for Napolitano. The contributions of longtime collaborators, bassist Todd Sickafoose and percussionists Mike Dillon and Allison Miller, augmented by value-for-money guests like violinist Jenny Scheinman, trumpet player Jon Hassell and cellist Marika Hughes, add considerably to the achievements of an altogether accomplished album.