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Ani DiFranco

To the Teeth

By Fred Choi

To say that Ani DiFranco is a prolific songwriter is a bit of an understatement. In less than a decade she has produced thirteen full-length albums and two remix EPs, all while being almost constantly on tour. Given this prolific output one might ask, “Does quality suffer as a result of too much quantity?”

So how does To the Teeth, the third DiFranco album of 1999, rate? Is it worth running out and buying even if you still haven’t finished digesting her two other albums from this year?

Teeth is a fairly typical DiFranco album -- a mix of instant classics; songs that while good by most standards are not among DiFranco’s best and aren’t likely to be among anyone’s list of favorites; and songs that, although good, are still rough around the edges and will likely be further developed on the road. The new album contains the usual mix in quality of songs, but with a noticeably wider range than usual. Teeth includes some of her best songs to date and some of her least memorable songs in recent memory.

One can easily hypothesize as to which of the thirteen tracks would have been relegated to the role of B-sides if DiFranco put out singles -- there are several songs on this particular album that aren’t of much interest either musically or lyrically. Among them are “Freakshow,” which, despite a rockin’ chorus features almost painfully Alanis Morrissette-esque vocals. And although “I Know This Bar” successfully paints a nostalgic picture, it contains no depth whatsoever. Likewise “The Arrivals Gate,” although interesting in its combination of electric beats and a folk style, features a subject that’s quite pointless. Rarely have DiFranco’s lyrics been so uninspired.

“Hello Birmingham” is one of DiFranco’s most tightly constructed songs, with words and music perfectly combining to produce a stark picture of violence against abortion. Although DiFranco includes her own experience in the song, its impact comes from the realization that the song is more concerned with the use of violence in the name of religion and in the attempt to guarantee life by taking life.

“To the Teeth” is also a song with a strong message, although the message is unusually muddled. When DiFranco sings that her response to the increasing violence in America is to “Open fire on Hollywood/Open fire on MTV/Open fire on NBC/and CBS and ABC,” we know that she must not mean it literally, as evidenced by the anti-violence statement made so clearly in “Hello, Birmingham.” Is she being ironic? In addition to the unclear message, the song also includes a drastically simplified picture of the state of affairs in regard to gun control, another surprising anomaly in DiFranco’s usually lucid style. These and other similar lapses in lyric control make a few of the songs on the album less potent and less engaging.

Although the tracks mentioned above have their drawacks, the 71-minute long album also includes many fantastic, memorable songs, with DiFranco often supported by her touring band comprised of Julie Wolf (keyboards and vocals), Jason Mercer (string and electric bass), and Daren Hahn (drums and percussion). Also contributing is a plethora of guest artists, several of whom were opening acts for DiFranco while on tour, such as the legendary funk Saxaphonist Maceo Parker, Brian Wolf of Drums and Tuba on brass and Kurt Swinghammer on electric guitar.

Along with “Birmingham” are the powerfully poignant “Soft Shoulder” and “Providence” (the latter featuring the Artist Formerly Known As Prince singing forceful backups), the swinging “Back Back Back”, “Going Once” with its fantastic trumpet and vocal duet intro (trumpet played by Brian Wolf), the aesthetically appealing and melodic, “Wish I May,” and “Swing,” the successful heir to the experimentally free and raucous “Hat Shaped Hat” from Up. In general, the songs on the album demonstrate DiFranco’s increasing comfort in a studio, and with using her band rather than just her own solo voice and guitar.

With the number of disappointing tracks on the new album, one is tempted to say that half of the songs from Up and half of the songs from To the Teeth could have been combined to produce a completely mind-blowing album.

However, the two represent DiFranco at very different points in her musical evolution and they are two very different albums. In some ways To the Teeth feels like a combination of the thrash folk with horns represented on some of Little Plastic Castle and the groovy, bluesy style of Up, but with the jazz and funk influence inspired by Maceo Parker thrown into the mix. The result is recognizably Ani, although, like Tori Amos’s piano work of late, her guitar playing has become much more integrated into the group’s sound. And despite some uncharacteristically weak lyrics and musical decisions, for the most part the album is well worth getting, as it demonstrates the formidable songwriting, guitar playing, and vocalizing skills of one of the most talented performers around today.