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.

What the album could use is chunky, old-fashioned grooves to punctuate the choruses and give form to the songs. Only "Chew," a subdued honky-tonk number that closes the album, helps Acetone sail -- the rest plods along soporifically. If you do listen, put it on late at night, when the whirling eddies in your mind give way to babbling brooks.

-- Steven M. Zeitchik

Generoso Jimenez & His Orchestra
El Trombon Majadero
(Bembe)

Generoso Jimenez was bad to the 'bone. From 1955 to 1959, he served as the arranger, composer, and main soloist in the band that backed Beny More, Cuba's most famous singer of the bluesy Latin music known as son. Jimenez was esteemed as Cuba's most famous trombonist, but he often served as a sideman to stars like More, playing Fred Wesley to More's James Brown. Jimenez combined an impressive command of Cuban jazz and an inimitable sense of mischief; you could tell he was smiling when he played.

Jimenez went on to lead his own orchestra in the early '60s, but it was short-lived. In 1965 he recorded his only album as a bandleader, the scorching El Trombón Majadero ("The Naughty Trombone"). Now available on CD, this historic gem proves that Jimenez was as influential in the development of big-band jazz in Havana as some of his more famous colleagues.

But mostly, this session is serious fun. From the outset Jimenez's brash horn pyrotechnics display a wicked sense of humor. His solo trombone flurries introduce the festive title track, laying down a sly rhythm that is flawlessly fleshed out by a top-notch big band. The manic pace continues with "Llegaron del Otro Mundo," a swaggering mambo that boasts Jimenez's inventive horn arrangements, and the cartoonish "Descarga Solfeando," a tongue-in-cheek detour into circus music. The energy level remains high throughout, showcasing Jimenez's delightfully wacky arrangements.

The surprisingly crisp recording benefits from the digital format. The bad-ass percussion section sounds full and the horns are never tinny. It's a shame this fine music has been unavailable for so many decades, but better late than never; this infectious jam session is as likely to fill a dance floor today as it was 30 years ago.

-- Manuel Pila

Denis Leary
Lock 'N Load
(A&M)

I was getting along just fine with Denis Leary when he was making commercials. He's just funny enough (or, more pointedly, advertising is just lame enough) to make him an acceptable shill. And there's no denying that his role as "The Fad King" in Wag the Dog was an inspired showcase for his rapid-fire misanthropy.

But there's a reason that Leary does so well in the world of commercials and cameos: A little of his shtick goes a long way. Unfortunately, as Lock 'N Load demonstrates, a lot of Leary gives you a migraine. Unlike, say, Dennis Miller, whose complaints are by and large insightful, Leary is a comedic bottom-feeder, content to cuss a lot and take aim at the easiest targets -- Marv Albert, fat people, 7-Eleven clerks -- using ammunition that is uninspired and unoriginal. Just check out Leary's attempt to lampoon the Lord of the Dance guy, here dubbed "Asshole of the Dance."

If this disc were filled just with Leary's chowder-headed rants, it would be difficult enough to bear. But Leary also fancies himself a musician, and his painfully stupid ditties compose a good third of the album. As Adam Sandler's recent success demonstrates, it is by no means impossible for comedians to cross over into music. Unfortunately, Leary lacks Sandler's self-effacing wit and offbeat sensibility. In fact, as a musician, Leary lacks even a scintilla of charm. He and his band sound more like the drunk idiots at the end of the party who won't shut up and go home. (The only bright spot on the entire dreary LP is Janeane Garofalo's hilarious sendup of Fiona Apple's MTV Awards acceptance speech, and that's barely a minute long.)

After an hour of Leary's emphysemic huffing, you'll be ready to dust off those old Andrew Dice Clay records. Yeah, it's that bad.

-- Steven Almond

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