One of popular music’s most refreshing and encouraging developments of the last couple of decades has been the rise of the independent artist. True, there have always been occasional artists who operate outside the machinery of the business and succeed in finding an audience. But in the 21st century, it seems more likely that an enterprising musicians/songwriter/performer can break through on his/her/their own terms, without signing their life away to what’s left of the music industry.
Chief among such artists is Ani DiFfranco. When she was still a teenager(!) DiFranco launched her own label, Righteous Babe Records. More than 30 years and 20-plus studio albums later, DiFranco has steadfastly continued to do things on her own terms. Her music is sociopolitical; her style defines easy categorization; her commitment to her art/craft is unassailable.
DiFranco’s success – she’s consistently a critical darling, and with good reason – is on her own terms, too. Although her record sales might be termed modest by industry standards, between record releases and touring, she has created a sustained and sustaining career. To the extent that mainstream chart figures have any relevance to her and/or her dedicated following, it’s worth observing that her highest-charting release to date is 1998’s Little Plastic Castle; it rose to the #22 spot on the U.S. folk album chart. (Once the Independent Albums chart was inaugurated in 2000, DiFranco racked up a staggering eight placements on that chart’s Top 10 list. Presumably, Little Plastic Castle would have performed well on that ranking.)
Coming out as it did during the post-vinyl era, DiFranco’s eighth solo release didn’t get an LP version. But now in 2023 – on the occasion of the album’s 25th anniversary – she has decided to reissue the record on a double-vinyl configuration.
DiFranco’s music is often characterized as folk, and while the album’s title track opens with an arrangement that fits into that category, the artist quickly takes things elsewhere. The appealing horn charts and loping beat of “Little Plastic Castle” has hints of New Orleans jazz and other textures. And the wonderful idiosyncrasies continue: “Fuel” features an extended spoken part – equal parts passion and mania – backed by a deeply funky and hypnotic rhythm bed. “Fuel” feels like street poetry: not exactly rap, but also not miles away from what Iceberg Slim was doing in the ‘70s.
“Gravel” is built around a set of skittering quick-run acoustic guitar figures. The arrangement is vaguely redolent of Dave Matthews Band’s ‘90s aesthetic, but let’s not hold that against DiFranco, as her song is wholly original. “As Is” has a feel along the lines of some of Paul Simon’s better work. The subtle basswork of Sara Lee (League of Gentlemen, Gang of Four) is a key to the song’s appeal, as is the understated brushwork of Jerry Marotta (or possibly Andy Stochansky; the album credits aren’t clear which drummer plays on which track(s)).
“Two Little Girls” has a southwestern feel and a delightfully wide-screen ambiance. The tune works on multiple levels, at least one of which is to serve as showcase for DiFranco’s vocal agility. The production is especially impressive. The swirling “Deep Dish” could serve as Exhibit A for DiFranco’s eclectic manner; it’s nearly prog in its construction, with left-field musical turns throughout. Very much a studio creation, the tune likely wouldn’t work in a live setting (I could be wrong on this) but it’s a dazzling display nonetheless.
“Loom” is more conventional in its form and delivery, but the uptempo tune is among the most accessible songs on this wildly varied collection of songs. DiFranco spits out copious lyrics, and some listeners will understandably focus on those. But the things she does instrumentally are every bit as fascinating, even on a tune like “Loom,” running well under three minutes. “Pixie” has some unusual sonic textures to recommend it. The spare “Swan Dive” demonstrates DiFranco’s ability to create a tune that’s both appealing and possessed of an unconventional meter. “Glass House” finds the artist embracing her rock (or at least folk-rock) inclinations. But as always, the arrangement features enough oddball sonic touches to keep it well outside the mainstream. And something about the song encourages the listener to lean forward, straining just a bit to peer through the musical window into DiFranco’s world. The song earned DiFranco a Grammy nomination in the Rock Female Vocalist category.
That feeling persists into the next track, the haunting “Independence Day.” Featuring little more than guitar and voice, the song makes remarkably effective use of the silent spaces between the notes. The album-proper concludes with “Pulse,” a song daubed with electronic flourishes that may remind some listeners of Suzanne Vega’s 99.9F° from 1992. But trumpet and accordion pull the song back toward more organic roots. And the song wastes not a bit of its 14-minute(!) run time.
The 2023 reissue of Little Plastic Castle features three bonus tracks, placed on Side four of the double LP. Noted as “bed tracks,” these alternate version of “Gravel,” “As Is” and “Two Little Girls” are interesting, serving to highlight DiFranco’s mastery of musicianship, arrangement and vocals.
On its original release, Little Plastic Castle was met my widespread critical acclaim; a quarter-century later, the record has aged remarkably well. It doesn’t feel dated, sidestepping as it does most of that era’s au courant productions choices. DiFranco’s songwriting is strong throughout. And the eye-popping orange vinyl pressing is in keeping with the color-saturated vibe of the album packaging. It’s an essential purchase for anyone who appreciates DiFranco’s inimitable musical style.