Ani DiFranco‘s prodigious touring eventually took its toll on her last year. A punishing schedule of over 100 gigs a year across the world (plus releasing a new studio album every year) resulted in tendon problems, and the fact that the New Orleans recording sessions of Reprieve were interrupted by Hurricane Katrina meant that 2006 could well have been the first year for a long time without a new DiFranco album.
Yet you can’t keep a good folk singer down, and DiFranco’s sixteenth album in as many years is with us as usual. The spectre of Katrina hangs heavy over the album, as you’d expect, and indeed Reprieve carries on the path laid down by Educated Guess and Knuckle Down in being a languid examination of both personal and political woes.
This phase of DiFranco’s career has not been welcomed by all fans, and indeed the frantic guitar playing of yesteryear is nowhere to be seen (which is to be expected, given DiFranco’s recent hand injury). Reprieve though follows Educated Guess in including some really accessible songs. Opening track Hypnotized is DiFranco’s prettiest melody in years, although the sound of a muffled gunshot at the start of the song indicates that this is very far from easy listening.
Reprieve is another ‘back to basics’ affair, with DiFranco only accompanied by regular touring partner Todd Sickafoose on bass, and the stripped down approach works as beautifully as ever. It’s particularly effective on the haunting, spoken word, title track or on the desperately sad Unrequited (“It’s such a shame you won’t talk to me ’cause I won’t repeat after you I believe that there is more to life we could’ve loved each other through”).
The theme of DiFranco’s troubled personal life is also raked over in the stand-out Half-Assed, which sees a welcome return to her stunning finger-picking guitar work, but it’s the incendiary political songs that form the centrepiece of any Ani DiFranco album, and Reprieve is no exception.
Perhaps the most arresting of the songs here is Millennium Theatre, a biting indictment of the US Government’s notoriously inefficient response to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. Beginning with a cynical eye on the colour-coded terror alerts (“Ramadan orange alert, everybody put on your gas mask”), it goes on to attack Dick Cheney (“pull the coat tails out from under that little V.P. before he has a chance to get in the driver’s seat”) ending on the poignant note that “New Orleans bides its time”. It’s even more eerie when you realise it was actually written before Katrina had struck.
The title track follows in the tradition of DiFranco spoken word songs, over a minimal backing of bass and acoustic guitar, DiFranco recites an powerful feminist treatise ending with the line “Feminism ain’t about equality, it’s about reprieve”. Anyone who’s fallen in love with DiFranco’s poetry will think of it as an instant classic.
Although this won’t be a commercial hit (as if she was ever going to be bothered about that), and probably won’t attract any more converts to the DiFranco cause, this is another reassuringly exceptional album from the self-styled ‘lil folk singer’. As she sings in Subconscious – “I know where I’m going, and it ain’t where I’ve been”. Long may she continue to travel.