- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Ani DiFranco

Knuckle Down

Righteous Babe

Don’t ever compare yourself to Ani DiFranco, especially if you’re having one of those what-have-I-done-with-my-life kind of days, because you’ll probably come up short.

With the exception of 2000, the prolific singer-songwriter, now 34, has put out at least one CD a year since 1990, each more mature than the last.

Her newest release, “Knuckle Down,” continues that tradition but goes easier on her trademark politics. Instead, it invites listeners to get truly personal — navigating everything from complicated familial relationships and romantic tensions to easy Sunday mornings and her very first tastes of social activism.

Most of the tracks don’t jump out at you at once. Miss DiFranco’s mellower these days, trading in the horns she’s used on past albums for delicate orchestrations using string, bass and piano. And unlike her last release — 2004’s “Educated Guess,” which she wrote, performed and recorded all on her own — Miss DiFranco invited fellow singer-songwriter Joe Henry to sign on as co-producer.

The pairing has produced “Knuckle Down’s” decidedly down-tempo effect, which is often beautiful and at other times haunting. Songs such as “Recoil” (the final offering on the 12-track disc) give listeners an unabashed glimpse into the singer’s most isolated moments and remind even her most die-hard fans that even Miss DiFranco — she of never-ending standing-room-only concerts and unshakable self-confidence — gets lonely, too.

“Been so long since I’ve been held/Really since I was his,” she sings.”Probably just need to be held/That’s probably all it is.”

The song (the whole album, actually) has the goose-pimply intimacy of a journal entry as it invites passers-by into her home to keep her company.

“Modulation” gives Miss DiFranco’s fans a familiar taste of the performer they’ve come to know and love. Her fingers boldly pick out bittersweet rhythms, and a melodic chorus coupled with a viciously beautiful verse (” Course, neither of us were wearing helmets/And our blood was just everywhere/And when the morphine kicked in later/The censors threw their hands up in despair”) is reminiscent of her angrier days.

In a nutshell, Miss DiFranco continues to amaze us . Just when you think she’s going to take a break, she puts out something else — something different, something new, with even cooler packaging.

Old-school fans who’ve been waiting for the Buffalo, N.Y., native to get back to her jumpier, pluckier roots can stop holding their breath — or maybe just give up and let it out for good. Because with Miss DiFranco, it’s really all about moving forward and not looking back at all.

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