After 11 full length solo albums released on her own record label, Ani DiFranco has the indie/folk/punk/rock thing figured out -- keep it fresh, interesting and grounded in a mix of personal and political themes. A few big name guest artists can't hurt either.
On her newest release, "To the Teeth," DiFranco does just this, experimenting musically while focusing her songs on the personal and political views and brutal honesty that have made her songs ring true and won her a huge following.
Mixing funk, folk, rock, jazz and a little hip-hop for good measure, DiFranco has produced an eclectic and musically challenging album that moves far beyond the "girl and her acoustic guitar" sound that she relied on for the first five or six years of her career. Adding horns, saxophone, a Wurlitzer organ and scratching turntables to her usual guitar-bass-drums setup works well on this album, and the musical experimentation that fell flat on her last release, "Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up," is effective here.
The bulk of the album was recorded over three days of jam sessions in a house in Louisiana, with band members scattered about the house playing their respective instruments. The result is a studio album that captures DiFranco's talent for improvisation and her energy better than her more recent efforts.
A standout track is "Swing," which features Maceo Parker on sax in a jazz-funk jam that includes scratching and rapping by Corey Parker. DiFranco adds bass, acoustic guitar, bells and a triangle along with bittersweet lyrics.
DiFranco has been criticized for being overly preachy, and she gives the critics the track they're looking for with the anti-gun title track, in which she urges us to "Open fire on Hollywood/open fire on MTV." But even on this heavy-hitting political track, DiFranco shocks us with her lyrics, "Open fire on each weapons manufacturer/while he's giving head to some Republican senator." Ani's not messing around, and she wants to remind us of that.
DiFranco's strength is still lyric-based ballads, and she delivers on "To the Teeth" with "Hello Birmingham," a devastating beautiful protest ballad documenting the shooting of an abortion clinic doctor in her hometown of Buffalo, NY and comparing it to the civil rights and abortion rights struggles of Birmingham, Ala.
She even collaborates with Prince on the achingly melancholy "Providence," a beautifully crafted song about a relationship that isn't meant to be.
Despite its serious feel, "To the Teeth," isn't without fun either. "The Arrivals Gate" reworks the banjo part from "Angry Anymore," adding an upbeat drum part and playful lyrics about airport terminals to create an irresistible slice of life song.
The biggest misstep of the album is the track "Freakshow," in which DiFranco proves that no matter how experimental you're feeling, you should never, ever try to sound like Alanis Morissette. The screaming and wailing are too much for even the bravest, most devoted listener to take.
Balancing the personal and the political and experimenting with new musical genres that she makes her own, Ani DiFranco has produced a strong but somewhat inconsistent album that, although not her best showing, proves that she still has a lot of musical potential left in her ten years after her solo debut.