Taking One Breath at a Time
Ani DiFranco Knuckles Down

As I write this, I am nearly done with my first graphic novel script. I was up all night on Monday discussing it with my collaborator. And I’m really tired, so this should be a short one this week. My apologies in advance for knocking it out in an hour. I’ll be back up to snuff next week. For now, though, a quick look at the first quarter of 2005:

After a slow January, the music starts flooding in on February 22 with Tori Amos’ new one, called The Beekeeper. I have decided to take a different tack with this one, and not compare it to her first three albums. I found that I could only enjoy Scarlet’s Walk, her 2003 document of banality, if I forgot entirely that it was supposed to be a Tori Amos album and listened to it like the work of some new artist. It still sucked, mostly, but I discovered that listening to all 70-some minutes of it didn’t fill me with quite the same rage as it did the first time I heard it, expecting, oh, I don’t know, a Tori Amos album.

Anyway, The Beekeeper is another epic record – 19 tracks over 79 minutes. And it seems that Amos has discovered the Hammond organ, as well, which could add a blues and gospel element to some of the songs. All well and good, but song titles like “The Power of Orange Knickers,” “Original Sinsuality” and “Hoochie Woman” don’t really fill me with confidence. On the surface, it doesn’t look like she responded to the primary criticism of Scarlet’s Walk, which is that if you don’t have 70 minutes of good material to record, don’t record 70 minutes of material.

On March 1, the Mars Volta screams back into record stores with Frances the Mute, another 70-some-minute slab. (Their website notes the running time as “one million hours.”) The difference is, there are only five songs on the Volta’s record, and three of them contain sub-sections, just like all your favorite ‘70s prog records. Wait, you don’t have any favorite ’70s prog records? Then this might not be for you… I’m excited about it, though. The first Mars Volta album was huge and complex, and this one looks like it tries to construct a skyscraper on that record’s foundation. Ambition is a wonderful thing. And besides, I have to hear a track called “Multiple Spouse Wounds.”

Speaking of ambition, two weeks later System of a Down comes back with the first of two new albums slated for this year. Hypnotize is the March installment, and Mesmerize is set to hit in September. System is one of the most original metal bands to come along in ages, and that they feel emboldened to let loose over two discs is heartening. Perhaps the industry’s polarization is a good thing – it might separate the singles-oriented pop stars from the album-oriented artists, and inspire those artists to go for huge statements. We love huge statements.

New stuff for the rest of March includes Moby’s Hotel, featuring his vocals likely ruining nearly every track; Porcupine Tree’s new one Deadwing; Over the Rhine’s Drunkard’s Prayer; and the long-awaited new Beck beat-o-rama, Guero. The Beck album is interesting – I’m finding that I look forward to his atmospheric, acoustic albums more than his pop-culture-in-a-blender funky-fests, and it’s fascinating to me that he’s divided his catalog so evenly between them. I’ll hopefully enjoy Guero as much as I did Odelay, but I’m happy it’s coming out mainly because that means we’re even closer to another Sea Change.

April kicks off with the second solo album by former Toad the Wet Sprocket singer Glen Phillips. This one’s called Winter Pays for Summer, and hopefully includes a set of lyrics comparable to that on his first record, Abulum. Indigo Girl Amy Ray releases her second solo album, Prom, on April 12, the same day as the fourth Garbage album, Bleed Like Me, and the new Starflyer 59, Talking Voice Vs. Singing Voice. I never got around to reviewing it, but as I expected, most people misunderstood Starflyer’s last album, I Am the Portuguese Blues, which was a collection of older songs re-recorded. This new one should continue their evolution where Old left off.

And then, the really good stuff starts coming. Or, rather, what I expect will be the really good stuff. On April 26, Ben Folds returns with Songs for Silverman, his second solo album. The good news is that it only contains one song from the trio of EPs he released, and that song is the gorgeous “Give Judy My Notice.” The better news is that the single, “Landed,” is lovely – Folds has succeeded again in crafting something deceptively simple that sounds like a classic. If you remember when Elton John was good, well, this sounds like that.

Also on the 26th is Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, a 33-track double album from the Eels. Now, I liked Shootenanny!, the band’s last Dreamworks album, but it turns out that Shootenanny! (I just love typing that title) was cranked out in 10 days while on a break from recording Blinking Lights. Eels frontman E has been working on this thing for more than two years, and he calls it his most personal since 1998’s Electro-Shock Blues, probably his finest record. I mentioned before how Beck likes to divide his more sonically adventurous pursuits and his more emotional explorations. Well, E is a master of combining the two, and it sounds like Blinking Lights could be his masterpiece.

The following week, May 3, brings us the new Aimee Mann, called The Forgotten Arm. Wait… called the what?!? Yep, this is Mann’s first major departure from the low-key sorrow-pop she’s perfected over four previous solo albums. The Forgotten Arm is a concept album set in the 1970s, concerning two lovers who meet at the Virginia State Fair. An Aimee Mann rock opera. Should be fascinating.

And we conclude with Nine Inch Nails, missing in action since 1999’s intense double record The Fragile. Trent Reznor has eradicated the prog-rock influences on the fourth (yes, only fourth) NIN full-length, With Teeth. He’s described it as a bunch of short, explosive songs, which brings to mind his Broken EP. It’s no surprise to me – after The Fragile, there were really only two directions he could go: back to basics, or onward to Tales from Topographic Oceans. We’ll see in May if he made the right choice.

There’s more coming, too, from the likes of Audioslave, Zach de la Rocha, Michael Penn, OutKast, Sigur Ros, Dan Wilson, Weezer, and two albums from the Fiery Furnaces, one of which features their grandmother. Oh, and Operation Mindcrime II from Queensryche, which should be like a really captivating five-car pileup. Don’t ever trust the needle, indeed.

* * * * *

Another year, another Ani DiFranco album.

A year ago this month, the Little Folksinger That Could released Educated Guess, the first album she made after dissolving her band. She’d painstakingly assembled that band, debuting them on the not-bad-in-retrospect jam Up Up Up Up Up Up in 1999, and they became the perfect extension of her experiments in folk-funk. The horn arrangements, especially on her double-disc opus Revelling/Reckoning, grew to titanic, dissonant proportions, and her vocals took on scat-singing elements, complimenting her slap-bang guitar playing. It was quite the evolution, culminating on 2003’s fittingly titled Evolve.

But DiFranco has a history of taking evolutions as far as she thinks they can go, and then trying something else. Educated Guess erased the slate, stripping her sound down to nothing but guitar, bass and vocals, all of which she performed herself. It sounds like a great idea, and hopefully it was a fine experience for her, but the album itself was a dismal listen, full of go-nowhere songs and demo quality arrangements. That’s the downside of owning your own record label – no one can tell you not to release records like Educated Guess.

Now here’s Knuckle Down, DiFranco’s 15th full-length, and it’s very nearly the exact opposite of its predecessor. Where DiFranco performed every part on Guess, here she is joined by a dozen other musicians, including pianist Patrick Warren and violinist Andrew Bird. Further, she has invited another musician to co-produce this record with her – a first for Ani. That musician is guitar chameleon Joe Henry, and Knuckle Down’s most glaring flaw is that he never plays a note. Still, his presence behind the boards is a whole new level of openness for DiFranco, almost as if she’s done proving her independence, and is strong enough now to let people in.

That newfound sense invigorates the songwriting as well. DiFranco has long eschewed big choruses, and it’s been a long time since she’s made easily digestible records, but she just may have written a hit with “Studying Stones.” It wafts in on DiFranco’s guitar and Bird’s lovely violin, and spreads its wings like few songs she has written since the days of Little Plastic Castle. Some fans will claim that it goes too far in the adult-pop direction, but I think it’s the sweetest thing she’s done in years.

The prickly side of DiFranco rears its head more than once here, don’t worry. “Manhole” pops and crackles, and “Lag Time” has a nifty syncopated melody that takes a few repetitions to sink in. But overall, Knuckle Down is just this side of accessible, especially on “Sunday Morning” and the sprightly closer “Recoil.” Lyrically, it’s an album full of hope breaking through loss, and she confines her political ruminations to “Paradigm,” a story from her childhood about working in a campaign office with her mother.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an Ani DiFranco album if she didn’t throw a curveball, and Knuckle Down has a doozy. “Parameters” is a spoken-word piece about fear and the after-effects of an assault, and it is utterly captivating. In the past, the poetry sprinkled throughout DiFranco’s albums has been little more than a speed bump, and sometimes has even destroyed the flow completely. “Parameters,” on the other hand, is an undeniable highlight, and in some ways, the rest of the album can’t compete. It is her most successful spoken piece, and I won’t ruin it here by excerpting.

Knuckle Down is a confident, assured record, one that finds Ani DiFranco back at the top of her game. It still feels like a step in a new direction – she’s arranged strings here for the first time, for example – and there’s no doubt that she’s continuing to evolve. But for an artist who often makes difficult albums on the way to sublime ones, DiFranco has turned in a delightful surprise here, one that reaffirms the rewards of following her twisty, idiosyncratic career.

Next week, Bright Eyes.

See you in line Tuesday morning.