Short Cuts

Ani DiFranco
Little Plastic Castle
(Righteous Babe)

Spice who? The real story behind girl power is Ani DiFranco, the singer-songwriter from Buffalo who has just released her tenth album. Though she's sold more than a million discs, DiFranco has remained true to her independent roots, refusing to leave the label she founded at age twenty, Righteous Babe Records. She's also true to her music: Little Plastic Castle is as genuine and intoxicating as any of her albums to date. And it's by far her most diverse.

Castle is like a walk in the park: breezy, brisk, and over before you know it. DiFranco still has her sing-along charm, but she's ditched the profanity she overused on her last studio release, 1996's Dilate. Yet Castle still has plenty of edge, along with the sultriness, anger, and humor that make DiFranco's music so appealing.

The title track, which opens the album with a horn section and a ska-flavored rhythm, is somewhat autobiographical, like much of DiFranco's material. Over her acoustic guitar, she sings, "They say goldfish have no memory/I guess their lives are much like mine.../And it's hard to say if they're happy/But they don't seem much to mind." On "Fuel," Castle's most infectious tune, she speaks, rather than sings, her attack on the media: "... All the radios agree with all the TVs/And the magazines agree with all the radios/And I keep hearing that same damn song/Everywhere I go." DiFranco unleashes her classic vocal power and staccato acoustic guitar-strumming on "Gravel," a song that appeared on last year's double-disc live album Living in Clip.

DiFranco's voice switches freely from a coy whisper ("Swan Dive") to a Melissa Etheridge-style shout ("Glass House"). The album's most unlikely song is its last, a jazzy fourteen-minute groove over which DiFranco reads her erotic and haunting poem, "Pulse": "I would offer you my pulse/ I would give you my breath."

Has there ever been a more endearing punk than this feisty folksinger? At her best -- which she often is on Castle -- DiFranco sings of harsh social realities without preaching, remains free of self pity, and has fun to boot. The world may be screwed up, but DiFranco is happy. It's beyond girl power; it's Righteous Babe power.

-- Jonathan Lesser

Air
Moon Safari
(Source/Caroline)

In art, predictions of the future always look like the present. Think of the constructivist sets of the movie Metropolis in 1926, or the Cadillac-style spaceships that zoomed through the sci-fi flicks of the '50s, or Mark Hamill's decidedly 1977 hairdo in Star Wars.

Generally, futuristic music has followed apace. But like the Millennium Falcon thrown into reverse, some of today's artists are actually traveling backward, and they're heading for that most dystopian of decades, the '70s. Squarepusher, for instance, blends jungle beats with outdated jazz-funk guitar. Stereolab's latest album, Dots and Loops, sounds like the Muzak that might play in a Westworld waiting room. The most recent example is the French band Air, whose two multi-instrumental members, Nicolas Godin and Jean Benoit Dunckel, are permanently living in the beige-and-tan decade.

Combining antiquated synthesizers (such as Moogs and Rolands) with guitars, brass, and strings, Air recreates the age when wood paneling and bad public art coexisted with keycard computers and early NASA missions. Moon Safari opens with "La Femme d'Argent," a slice of soulful kitsch that recalls Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield. But it's also drenched with Meco-sounding futuristic schlock, like flying-saucer noises and a chorus of synth-violins. The next track, "Sexy Boy," goes on a different tangent: It's a dramatic pop song with female vocals and glam-rock guitar. Yet the starry little organ riffs and quirky noises continue the ever-present theme of space.

Moon Safari's ten tracks strike an admirable but uneven balance between instrumental flights of fancy and straightforward songs that aren't terribly successful. "All I Need," featuring the American singer Beth Hirsch, is basically just warmed-over Portishead with some not-so-great British lyrics. But the pastoral schmaltz of "Ce Matin La" -- all warm horns, bird effects, and wah-wah guitar -- is absolutely brilliant, as is "Remember," a collaboration with the godfather of electronic music, Jean Jacques Perrey.

Godin and Dunckel once described their music as something that would be listened to by the Modular Man, which was a sort of futuristic being dreamt up by the functionalist architect Le Corbusier. Indeed the modular tones and atmospheric melodies of "Le Voyage de Penelope" and "Kelly, Watch the Stars!" are truly evocative of some distant, intriguing, and yet melancholy future. Or is it the past?

-- Rafer Guzman

Acetone
Acetone
(Vapor)

Acetone's version of alternative rock is so quiet that at times the band sounds as if a faint wind could simply blow them away. The credit (or blame) goes to Richie Lee's hushed vocals and Mark Lightcap's slow, droning guitar. Both move forward tentatively, oblivious that the beat could vanish at any moment while admirably resisting the temptation to erupt into solos.

Because of Steve Hadley's self-restrained rhythms, Acetone often suggests a hornless Morphine. But where that band turns to the saxophone for its aural spark, Acetone looks to ethereal melodies that meld kaleidoscopically into each other. Greg Lee's steel pedal guitar gives added backbone to songs such as "Every Kiss" and "All You Know." But even his wailing instrument can't correct Acetone's most fatal mistake: mistaking a lethargic beat for emotional resonance.

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