Last summer’s Lilith Fair tour made rock fans, the press, and concert promoters alike rediscover the merits of a woman, an acoustic guitar, and her feelings. It also unintentionally promoted the notion that a woman with a guitar and her feelings made for a touchy-feely experience. How can Sarah McLachlan insert a little grit insert a little grit into this summer’s second Lilith? For starts, she can recruit one of a slew of underground folkies who’ve been carrying on an alternative Lilith Fair all decade, on small labels and on tinier stages than those that hosted McLachlan’s sister-songwriter road show.
Ani DiFranco is the godmother of this scene, and with good reason: Her do-it-herself aesthetic, punky hairdos, and caffeinated stage presence have been nothing short of uncompromising, even if her sensitive-folkie broadsides have been pretty conventional. Dilate (1996), her last studio album, used harder guitars, hip-hop shout-outs, and distortion effects to accent the anger, hurt, and self-loathing that raced through its songs, Little Plastic Castle is comparatively calmer but takes several more musical steps ahead. Her brisk, full-bodied guitar chords and pugnacious voice remain front and center, but she ventures into folk noir (“Deep Dish”) and incorporates ska-laced horns. She’s even learning to relax without lapsing into cutesiness. The hymn “Pulse” unfolds dreamily, hypnotically, over 14 minutes — it’s the alt-folk “Like a Hurricane.”
However, the flaws that have made DiFranco’s albums such arduous listens still linger. As with many singer-songwriters before her, she lets her lyrics steer her melodies, not the other way around, resulting in songs that feel like nervous twitches. Her willingness to deflate her own pretensions is commendable (“I could join forces with an army of ornery hipsters/But then I guess I’d be out of a job,” she admits in “Pixie”). But the disc also overflows with self-righteousness (jabs at the media and pop culture) and repeated, clunky swipes at loser boyfriends. If one isn’t a “stupid circus clown,” another is a “giant insect;” “Just give up/And admit you’re an a–hole,” she hectors a third. When she badgers a sulky store clerk to “suck up and be nice,” you’re tempted to throw her out of the establishment yourself.
Shucking music-biz convention, DiFranco continues to record her own label, Righteous Babe. Mary Lou Lord likewise started on an indie — the punk-inclined Kill Rock Stars — but judging by Got No Shadow, her major-label debut, Lord should have sold out years ago. Her sweet hush of a voice and winsomely strummed campfire-folk melodies weren’t, and still aren’t, very punk; if anything, Lord is a wide-eyed balladeer, Janis Ian in army boots. Her collaborators on Got No Shadow (especially guitarist-songwriter Nick Saloman) know this, and their tight, tidy folk-rock grooves lend a chimney buoyancy to songs like “His Lamest Flame” and Freedy Johnston’s “The Lucky One.” Lord’s sound has been shaped as well; compare the urgent remake of “Some Jingle Jangle Morning” with the rawer but less focused 45 she made in 1993.