The base for DiFranco's indie label Righteous Babe remains in her hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., and the artist herself maintains a pretty steady touring schedule, but for a few years now, she's had a place in Bywater, where she recorded the 12 tracks on Reprieve in early 2005. She was actually in town for the storm and evacuated without the master recordings for the album, but drove back into the city three days after the levees failed to retrieve them. Holing up in Buffalo for the duration, she went ahead and overdubbed the record in the unplanned locale, which, she says, meant using whatever instruments were around. She wound up playing with some unusual choices, including a vintage Suzuki omnichord and a modern synthesizer, "trying to use uncool sounds in cool ways," she says.
Back in New Orleans once electricity was restored to Bywater, DiFranco and producer (and boyfriend) Mike Napolitano did the final mixing. "After the power came on, I had access to all kinds of distortion," she says. The album credits St. Claude Avenue with equal billing as a sideman as bassist Todd Sickafoose and DiFranco herself, and has a landscape of found sound, including the Bywater frogs, which should by now be in the musicians' union after all of their appearances on Ninth Ward-generated recording projects. Between the pump organ, synth, bicycle pump, Wurlitzer and standard instrumentation listed as part of the electronic and organic menagerie on the record, you almost expect it to be a sonic jungle, but the final product is orderly and deliberate. Righteous Babe's press release states, as press releases will, that Reprieve is "the clearest demonstration yet of her talents as a producer," and it kind of is. The extra free time, and the strange mental space of the immediate post-Katrina world gave her time to focus on the album's production, and it shows. It's still, like most of her projects, driven by the basic folk tool kit of her guitar and expressive vocals, but the extra sounds placed just so accessorize the sound in a way that fills all the right spaces and leaves all the right blanks.
Like a lot of people these days -- especially in New Orleans -- DiFranco is annoyed with the current presidential administration. The best songs on the album use her needle-fine observational laser to call out George W. and his associates for their destructive stumble through the things that make life in America nice, deftly weaving the political with the intimate. Songs like "Shroud," which explores the external pressures at odds with the freedom to make art, the openly political "Decree," and the martial call to arms against the patriarchy in the spoken-word title track are classic Ani. Even with her emergent talents as a producer and field recorder, one of her biggest gifts as an artist is extraordinary control and range of emotion over her distinctive voice and razor-sharp turn of phrase. Like an expertly-bowed string, her voice dominates every track, going from a tender caress to a seething jab.
The prescient gem on the album is the track "Millennium Theater," astoundingly, written before the storm even appeared on the radar. It's the most direct indictment of the Bush administration's grandstanding out of a set of heavily political tracks, and it also takes as its theme the increasingly unsettling way news, and by association, reality, is constructed to play on TV. It's three minutes and fourteen seconds of masterful media commentary in which the synthesizer and omnichord are used to best effect to open with a spacey, inorganic Twilight Zone ambience. After a collage of news catchphrases and apocalyptic suggestions ("Digital whiplash / so many formats, so little time," "Ramadan, orange alert / everybody put on your gas masks"), DiFranco inserts the line, "New Orleans bides her time," almost as a non sequitur. Pre-Katrina, I'd have read it as a feeling I've had many times, that our city is a timeless Bohemian enclave maintaining a certain anachronistic dignity, hiding out under the radar. Post-K, it's laden with much, much more. "The resistance is waiting to be organized," DiFranco sings.