Looking Forward, Looking Back
But—as is customary for DiFranco—after a few spins, there emerges a much more well-rounded collection than simply a stack of googly-eyed love songs. Between adoring the way someone eats a sandwich and cooing over her daughter, DiFranco looks back on her days as a fearless kid ("Emancipated Minor") and the degree to which she managed to buck the system simply by sticking to her convictions ("Alla This"). While the latter may harken back to some of her damn-the-man tunes of a decade ago, this time its sung from a place more based on empowered joy than determined defiance.
Red Letter Year's Best Moments
Another highlight is "Good Luck" (purchase/download) whose star is drummer Alison Miller. The percussion starts out long and langid, then sputters and falls away, barely touching cymbals, allowing the lyrics to take the fore and stumble over their own rhythm ("like an avalanche of detour signs falling off a truck"). It's a little dark gem in the middle of the disc, contrasting "Present/Infant" (purchase/download) and "Landing Gear" (purchase/download), which both beautifully relate the profound impact of motherhood.
Also poignant is the extended reprise of the title track, played exquisitely by New Orleans' Rebirth Brass Band. Where "Red Letter Year" (purchase/download) starts with celebration and ends in disaster, DiFranco flips that narrative on its head, kicking off the disc singing about the storm and ending it with a celebration. Clearly, after 20 turns in the studio, she's well aware of how to tell a compelling story not only from verse to verse, but also from song to song.
A Reason to Celebrate
A few industry evolutions, various collaborations, turns as producer and songwriter, thousands of days onstage, 20 solo albums, 11 band members, and a handful of national disasters later, DiFranco has a lot to be happy about. She may spend a few lyrics in "Way Tight" (purchase/download) narrowing her accomplishments down to laughable simplicity ("I've fixed up a few old buildings and planted a few trees"), but she is one of a tiny community of trail blazers who tested the tepid waters of self-ownership in the days before MySpace and iTunes.
Now, as she presses on amid the swirling din of "indie" rockers and fledgeling punk-folksingers, it's no wonder Red Letter Year is such an artful celebration, and one of her best efforts yet.