"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Thursday, February 26, 2004

In Your Ear -Ani DiFranco, Asylum Street Spankers

In Your Ear

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer


Educated Guess

Victor, 2,400 yen

The Little Punk Folkie That Did is back. After a decade of making albums with a backing band and producer, Ani DiFranco holed up alone in a New Orleans shotgun shack with an eight-track recorder and emerged with Educated Guess, a 14-track one-woman effort for which she did everything but personally stuff liner notes into CD cases.

Educated Guess marks a return to DiFranco's roots as a solo performer armed only with her acoustic guitar, her taut, airy, potent voice and lots of attitude, but also shows far a greater degree of musical and social sophistication and maturity than early albums.

The anger, militant feminism and strident liberalism of the early years is still there, but the bull in the china shop has become a matador, cloaking the sharpest lyrical steel in a velvet cape. She's still in your face, but you can never be sure whether it's to plant a kiss or an uppercut until the lyrical jolt has been delivered. Songs such as "Origami" and "Animal" demonstrate that DiFranco has not mellowed with age, she's just gotten craftier.

The layered, ringing guitar on Educated Guess shows off some impressive technique and compositional chops. DiFranco may not be the fastest or fanciest on the fretboard, but she is certainly one of the most original.

On first listening, the high-pitched chirps, wails and echoes of the backing vocals DiFranco has laid down seem superfluous, distracting and at times even grating, but repeated listenings show them to be the key to the deeper inner funkiness of "Bliss Like This" and an appropriate accent to the minor key mournfulness of "Bodily" and "You Each Time."

Three tracks are poetry recitations with accompanying soundscapes, ranging from the short personal "Platforms" to the longer sly broadside of "Grand Canyon."

DiFranco's all-too-brief tour of Japan--one show each in Tokyo and Osaka early next month--is not to be missed.

The Asylum Street Spankers


Buffalo Records, 2,099 yen

Hot on the heels of the release of their concert DVD Sideshow Fez late last year, the acoustic daredevils of The Asylum Street Spankers are back with Mercurial, a studio album of covers that have been a staple of their unbelievable live performances.

The band that has audiences on three continents asking "What the hell was that?" serves up smooth old jazz (Ivory Joe Hunter's "Since I Met You Baby") and smoking traditional blues ("Got My Mojo Working") straight up, with a chaser of hard-to-believe covers of The Beastie Boys, The B-52s, Black Flag and Jazz Butcher. Gangsta rap meets the Grand Ole Opry on "Hick Hop" and kitsch meets cool on "Shine on Harvest Moon."

The Spankers are far more than a simple though deeply weird comedy or novelty act. Veteran jazzman Stanley Smith's cool clarinet accents and Nevada Newman's slide guitar solos alone more than establish the Spankers' music credibility. Singer Christina Marrs could make the pope kick a hole in a stained-glass window with her frankly erotic version of Bessie Smith's "Sugar in My Bowl," while the antic efforts of violinist and dobro player Korey Simone and singer, harmonica player and general ringmaster Wammo are best described as acid burlesque.

In the unlikely event that this album alone isn't enough to make you smile, during March, Buffalo Records is giving away copies of a 17-track CD label sampler (including tracks by the Spankers, Hot Club of Cowtown, Ryan Adams and String Cheese Incident among others) with the purchase of any of the roots label's CDs--while supplies last.

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