Ani DiFranco Takes Chances On Little Plastic Castle

Album includes wistful lyrics and scat-like spoken word over DiFranco's trademark guitar.

At just 19, Duncan Craig longs for the days when he can again buy Ani DiFranco a cup of coffee and "talk the talk" after one of the

punk-folk singer's shows.

"Her increased visibility is somewhat of an understatement!" said Craig, a webmaster for "Duncan and Michelle's Ani DiFranco

Page," reminiscing about a post-gig cup of java he shared with the singer in 1992.

Judging by some of the lyrics to the opening tracks on DiFranco's upcoming album, Little Plastic Castle (Feb. 17), the

27-year-old singer seems to be feeling a little wistful as well. "People talk/ About my image/ Like I come in two dimensions/ Like

lipstick is a sign of my declining mind," DiFranco sings in the galloping trumpet-and trombone-assisted opening title-track, ending the

verse with a playfully caustic "Like what I happen to be wearing/ The day that someone takes a picture/ Is my new statement for all


"Because of the title, people will assume it's about that, her increased visibility," said Ron Ehmke, "minister of communications" for

DiFranco's independent label, Righteous Babe Records. "But she talks about all kinds of things in her life, she always has. That song is

just as much about her traveling around with a friend with a shaved head and multiple piercings and not feeling welcome," said

Ehmke, pointing to the verse in which DiFranco sings, "But be careful getting coffee/ I think these people wanna shoot us."

DiFranco, however, quickly dispenses with that kind of overt, biographical self-referencing after the second track, "Fuel," a loose,

scat-like spoken-word meander in which the singer unleashes stream-of-consciousness lyrics about slave cemeteries, summer

blockbusters and cross-marketing. "That song is about more than just her career," Ehmke said. "It takes a look at our culture as well."

The singer offers a little bit of everything fans have come to expect from her. The clipped, urgent "Gravel" and jazzy, delicate "As Is" could easily be carry-overs from DiFranco's previous studio album, Dilate, in which the singer explored the depths of her personal relationships in greater detail than ever before. "Two

Little Girls" is the type of dark-folk, gender-non-specific love song that DiFranco has turned into a personal trademark, this time

tinged with the specter of drug abuse and death.

"Dilate was somewhat of a shocker in more ways than one," Craig said. "I had heard all of the songs on the album before its

release by way of multiple concerts and bootlegs. So, when I heard the distortion and sampling, I was a little taken aback. But it grew on me."

Craig said he'd heard Castles was "a step in a new direction," which -- despite his excitement -- he described as "a little


The direction DiFranco has stepped in, though, is merely a less restrictive one, according to Ehmke. "There's more musical

improvisation on this album," he said, pointing to the hypnotic, 14-minute closing track "Pulse." Edited down from its original

22-minute length, the song was first recorded in a carport (its working title was "Carport Jam") at the Congress House studios in Austin, Texas, where the album was tracked.

"She felt more things like that happening," Ehmke said. "They played a lot of these songs on the road and they changed as they were

recorded, because there was a relaxed, improvisational vibe."

The hushed folk of "Glass House" was re-fashioned with a funky bass

solo at its front end and the title track was originally recorded outside to catch the sound of crickets and the Austin night, although

that version doesn't appear on the album.

One of the most interesting results of DiFranco's experimentation is a meandering spoken-word poem by one of the album's

engineers, Mark Hallman, which is dropped in among the brassy horns and baritone guitar on the song "Deep Dish." "Ani just put a tape recorder

in the bathroom of the studio to pick up stuff," Ehmke said. "Just improvised bits of people talking in the bathroom and that one just

turned out real well."

The album, which features contributions from Peter Gabriel sideman Jerry Moratta and Talking Heads collaborator Jon Hassell, also

features the songs "Loom," "Swan Dive" and "Independence Day."

DiFranco gives what Ehmke described as her "own take on her self-image," in the folky-blues tune "Pixie," describing herself as "a

pixie," "a paper doll" and "a cartoon."

"Ani has only changed as much as any other human has in a decade," Craig said. "It's her surroundings that have changed. And they'll

continue to as more and more people learn about her and hear her music. And the select few of us that have stuck with her [from the beginning] will always

be there, somewhere, tucked away into the masses."[Fri., Dec. 12, 1997, 9 a.m. PST]