First Fruits of the New Year
Or, Three Albums That Are Not the New Guided By Voices

So. Remember last week, when I announced that Let’s Go Eat the Factory, the first album from the reunited Guided by Voices, would be my first purchase of 2012? Yeah, not so much. The release date’s been pushed back a couple of times, and the consequence is that I’ve already picked up six new records this year, and none of them are Let’s Go Eat the Factory, the first album from the reunited Guided by Voices.

Yes, I could listen to the free stream of the record online, but that’s not how I like to do things. You’ll have to wait until next week to hear what I think about GbV. (And so will I.) But that doesn’t mean you’re going away empty-handed this week. In fact, 2012 is off to a promising start, and I’m prepared to tell you all about it.

On tap: an album I expected to like (and did), an album I expected to hate (and didn’t), and a flat-out fun piece of work from an unexpected team-up. First reviews of 2012! Ready? Go!

* * * * *

It’s been more than three years since Ani Difranco put out an album.

In Ani time, that’s like a decade. The Little Folksinger from Buffalo, New York has been steadily self-releasing records since 1990, sometimes two or three a year – 17 studio albums, three EPs, several collaborative efforts and a whole ton of live efforts. She was one of the first recording artists to establish her own independent label, free from outside influence – in technology terms, she’d be called an early adopter – and she’s used that freedom to do whatever she wants, as often as she wants.

So the fact that she took so much time away since 2008’s Red Letter Day is significant. In that time, she got married to her production partner, Mike Napolitano, and worked on raising their daughter, Petah. And she also slowly and carefully crafted Which Side Are You On, her just-released return to store shelves, over several sessions in 2010 and 2011. Difranco, a notoriously spur-of-the-moment songwriter and record-maker, has never spent so much time on one project before, and she says that allowed her to write a backlog of tunes, and sculpt the arrangements to her liking.

If you’re worried that Which Side is Difranco’s Chinese Democracy, don’t. This isn’t a staid studio project, slaved over until it gasps its last. This is just a particularly well-arranged work, with something new to marvel at every few seconds. Yeah, there are plenty of guest stars – Ivan and Cyril Neville (yes, those Nevilles), Anais Mitchell, saxophonist Skerik, Pete Seeger (on the title track, a cover of a song he popularized in the ‘50s) – but at its core, this is just another Ani album: diverse, well-crafted, full of life, and sporting a set of lyrics worth poring over and reveling in.

On this, her 17th album, the 41-year-old Difranco sounds personally content and politically disillusioned. She opens the record with a warning, in case we’ve forgotten who we’re dealing with: “Every time I open my mouth I take off my clothes, and I’m raw and frostbitten from being exposed,” she sings on the low-key “Life Boat.” As usual, her lyrics are forthright, direct, and searingly honest. You always know Ani’s telling you the truth about how she feels.

And on the political tunes here, she feels let down, but not out. Her recasting of the title track is just wonderful, her crack band sharing space with local singers, drummers and horn players from New York. She adds her own verses, compelling those who agree with her to get up, get out and vote: “So are we just consumers, or are we citizens, are we going to make more garbage, or are we going to make amends, are you part of the solution or are you part of the con, which side are you on?” Seeger’s banjo starts this thing off, and provides its bedrock.

But elsewhere, she’s more reflective, as on “J” when she admits some disappointment with our commander in chief: “You’d a thought we’d have come more far somehow since the changing of the guard and all, I mean, dude could have been FDR right now and instead he’s just shifting his weight…” (From the author of this squirmy ode to Obama, that’s a huge admission.)

And she turns her attention (and her for-better-or-worse bluntness) to women’s rights on “Amendment,” a plain-spoken plea for the ERA. Here’s the best and worst of Ani’s lyrical prowess, from the poetic (“If men can kill and be decorated instead of blamed, then a woman called upon to mother can choose to refrain”) to the stunningly prosaic (“When I say we need the ERA it ain’t ‘cause I’m a fool, it’s ‘cause without it nobody can get away with anything cool”). “Amendment” feels like it wants to be a rallying cry, but it reads more like a first draft with potential.

But that may be because angry, politically-minded Ani takes a serious back seat here to delightedly domestic Ani. Some of these songs are the happiest she’s ever given us, and they’re a joy to hear. “Albacore” takes the prize for me. “I’m no blushing girl, no innocent dove, it took me a long time to find love,” she sings at the start, then gives the ultimate compliment: “When I am next to you, I am more me.” On “Hearse,” she finds a simultaneously funny and touching metaphor: “We’ll be pushing up daisies and my crush will just be getting worse, and I will follow you into the next life like a dog chasing after a hearse…”

After following her struggles, romantic and otherwise, for two decades, it’s genuinely moving to hear Difranco this contented. She sums up her feelings on the raucous blues “If Yr Not”: “If you’re not getting happier as you get older, then you’re fucking up.” She even leaves us with the last verse of “Zoo,” which sounds like her way of preparing us for an even longer wait next time: “And if I should ever quit your spotlight, I hope you won’t think me wrong, says the poet to the moonlight, says the singer to the song, it’s enough just to stay upright in every single way, and pour your love into your children until there’s nothing left to say…”

I hope it’s a long time before Difranco has nothing left to say. But a happiness so all-encompassing it makes her consider giving up music? How could you begrudge her that? Which Side Are You On is a strong return for one of the most distinctive, literate and flat-out talented songwriters we have, and its delightful songs of devotion make up for its occasional blunt-force missteps. Even with those few stumbles, Which Side is the year’s first great record. Whoever said happy people don’t make compelling art should hear this.

* * * * *

No one is more surprised than me that I like the new Snow Patrol album.

I mean, they’re Snow Patrol. They suck. They write repetitive, go-nowhere “anthems” that bore when they should soar. On five previous albums, they refined a sound that I grew more and more tired of – rigidly repeating eighth-note guitars strumming simple chords while Gary Lightbody plaintively wails, and producers pile sonic muck on top of everything. Their last effort, 2008’s A Hundred Million Suns, was their biggest effort – it concluded with a three-part, 16-minute suite – and yet most of it stuck to their worn-out formula.

So why did I even buy Fallen Empires, their just-released-in-the-U.S. sixth go-round? Because I’m a sucker for flip-the-script narratives, and word was that Lightbody and his crew had done just that. In my review of Suns, I said it took the Snow Patrol sound as far as it could go, and that I would need a reinvention to sign on for album six. Did I get one? In a lot of important ways, yes. In a lot of just as important ways, no. But this record works.

For Fallen Empires, Snow Patrol has become the umpteenth guitar band to embrace electronics. Nearly every song here is peppered with pitter-patter drums and buoyed by synthesizers. The core of Lightbody’s songwriting hasn’t changed much – he still composes repetitive, melody-deficient pleas to the sky – but you’d be stunned at just how much that sort of thing improves when the constant da-da-da-da guitar playing is replaced with something else. They kept most of what defines them, but moved it into a strikingly different context.

But even the more straightforward ones, like “This Garden Rules,” all pianos and strings, work for me this time, and I’m not sure why. I just know that when Lightbody and guest vocalist Lissette sing “you’ll never know how much I love you,” I lose track of the fact that the song is only two chords repeated again and again. Take “New York,” the prettiest thing here. It’s four piano chords, endlessly repeating, but something in the production – the orchestration, the backing vocals, the sweeping tone – turns it special. “Come on, come out, come here,” Lightbody sings, and by the end, I’m singing it too.

Snow Patrol have really only changed a few things, but they’ve worked wonders with them. The title track is barely a song – it’s all on one note – but the electronics add a sense of creeping menace that just wouldn’t have been possible without them. The wall of sound is gone, and in its place are a newfound sense of space and a healthy dose of new tones. Fallen Empires is the first Snow Patrol album I’ve liked enough to listen to more than a few times, and is the first one that has me actively interested in where they go next. It ain’t love, but it’s good enough.

* * * * *

This new year has a long way to go, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve just heard its most fun record.

It’s called For the Good Times, and it’s the second effort by the Little Willies, a supergroup that thoroughly defies the term. While most people will come to the Willies for singer and pianist Norah Jones, I’m here for criminally ignored New York songwriter Richard Julian. I’ve been a Julian fan for more than a decade, and over six solo albums, he’s displayed the sharp wit and observational honesty of a master. Plus, he can sing and play pretty damn well, too.

So the Little Willies is Jones and Julian, with guitarist Jim Campilongo, bassist Lee Alexander and drummer Dan Rieser, all well-respected players. And when they get together, they do covers of old country tunes, written by the likes of Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Ralph Stanley, and their namesake, Willie Nelson. The quintet clearly had a blast making this, and unlike most projects like these, this is just as much fun to listen to. It’s loose, but beautifully played, and shows the deepest respect for these songs.

Just check out their take on “Lovesick Blues,” a song Hank Williams took to the top of the charts in 1949. Julian and Jones wrap their voices around each other, pulling off the near-yodels perfectly, while the band hangs back and lays down a sweetly swaying groove. Jones lets out her inner spitfire on Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City,” and if you think Jones’ usual fare could use a good kick in the ass, check her out on this tune. It’s a lark, but she digs in and sings the hell out of it.

Other highlights: Julian puts his personal stamp on Willie Nelson’s grand “Permanently Lonely,” he and Jones have a great time with Quincy Jones’ “Foul Owl on the Prowl” (famously featured in the film In the Heat of the Night), and Jones does a fine job with Kris Kristofferson’s title track. The record closes out with Dolly Parton’s signature “Jolene,” the most well-known song the Willies have covered, and it’s a low-key rendition, Jones pulling out new colors from the familiar melody.

For the Good Times is reverent when it needs to be, but mainly, it’s just a boatload of fun. And if it serves to bring Richard Julian’s work further into the public eye, then that’s an unqualified good. (Check him out here.) The Little Willies is the best kind of side project – one with its own identity, one that makes its own convincing case. I can’t wait to hear more.

* * * * *

Next week, Guided by Voices for sure, and one or two other things. Back in the saddle, y’all. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow my infrequent twitterings at

See you in line Tuesday morning.