Ani DiFranco
Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up
Righteous Babe

On Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up DiFranco expands her palette by adding Julie Wolf, a remarkable keyboard player whose organ and piano work add considerable weight to DiFranco's already phat sound. And on this outing, DiFranco's 11th effort since 1990, her band rediscovers the riff, and the gritty funk that's often implicit in her work takes a great leap forward, producing rhythms as tough as her lyrics. "Jukebox," "Know Now Then" and "Hat Shaped Hat," a 13-minute-long, freeform, Clintonesque (that's George, not Bill, y'all) jam full of playfully disjointed images, open with ear-grabbing hooks and bubble with infectious, funky energy.

DiFranco is also exploring new territory with her guitar work. She still tosses off power chords that'll knock you flat, but she's using more crystalline fills to complement her always impressive vocals, while drummer Andy Stochansky and bassist Jason Mercer continues to find subtle ways to accent the rhythms without overwhelming the boss.

At the same time she explores the pop possibilities of her music, DiFranco renews her commitment to the folk sounds that inspired her. "Angry Anymore," a thank-you letter to her parents for the pain they endured on her behalf, is as sentimental as the Appalachian ballads it echoes. "Trickle Down," a portrait of a steel town that's been decimated by factory closings, is as chilling a protest song as any written by a mine worker or union activist. Like all good poets, DiFranco sums up the situation with a few well-chosen words: "Now that the air is fit to breathe, no one lives here anymore."

With Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up DiFranco cements her place in the ranks of elite artists such as Dylan and Prince, prolific writers who are able to turn out a prodigious amount of compelling work in a brief period of time without burdening fans with outtakes or half-realized efforts.

-- j. poet

Black Crowes
By Your Side

Do you need a rock record? Yes. Should it have lots of guitar solos? Yes again. Slide guitar solos? Sure. Wah-wah guitar solos? Definitely. Sticky Fingers-era Rolling Stones-type horns? Yes. Would it include gospel-y female backup singers? Certainly. A Hammond organ would be a nice touch, don't you think? Yep. Might as well put some barrelhouse piano in, too, huh? Agreed. Let's have some Stax/Volt vibe in there. Surely. Well, if we're gonna do that, there has to be some harmonica. Yeah. Now, let's talk about the lead singer. Rod Stewart is pretty lame now, but with the Faces he was pretty kick-ass, so let's get some of that. For sure. But he better have some soul influence as well, and he should have some of that "Southern rock" swagger. Positively. And he has to look good in leather pants. Oh, totally.

So what can we do to keep it from sounding by the numbers? Well, the brothers in the Black Crowes have occasionally been feuding brothers, like the Kinks, but they fight because they are passionate. Enthusiasm is contagious, and the Crowes' fifth record is full of the fire that has been lacking in their past couple of platters. Returning to the straight-forward rock fold after getting a little hippie/jam band-y, Atlanta's finest rock revivalists are back with 11 songs, all of which fall in between the 3 1/2-minute and 4 1/2-minute marks, so you know that they mean business. With singer Chris Robinson reaching deep into his leather and singing from his, er, gut, and his sparring/songwriting partner, his brother Rich, finally delivering on the Keith Richards/Ron Wood promise he has been making for the past decade together, By Your Side is the rock record to start the party with. And didn't you say that you needed that?

-- David Simutis

Greg Trooper
Popular Demons

Not all songwriters from New Jersey want to grow up to be Bruce Springsteen. Some, such as Greg Trooper, move to Nashville hoping their songs will get into the canon of country music. Trooper has been around for quite a while, having spent time in Austin; Lawrence, Kansas; and even Brooklyn before making the move to Music City about four years ago. Not surprisingly, when he got there he joined the circle of writers who rely less on cliche and standard formulas and more on where their hearts take them. Trooper's songs have been recorded by Steve Earle, Vince Gill and Maura O'Connell, not your average everyday group of hat acts. His latest compact disc, Popular Demons, is a stirring journey taken through Trooper's passionate eyes and pensive spirit. Songs such as the fiddle-driven roots rocker "Halfway," "Bluebell," a touching duet with Emmylou Harris, and "21st Century Boy," a country-tinged ode to his newborn son, are among the most rousing and heartfelt of the past 12 months. He hooked up with Buddy Miller, who has worked with Earle, Harris and Jim Lauderdale and is a fine songwriter on his own. Miller brought in some fabulous sidemen and friends to give Trooper's songs the organic feel they needed without overwhelming them with gimmickry. Trooper's live performances tend to possess a little more grit and sweat than his records, though. His last pass through Texas had his audiences stomping in the aisles and screaming for more.

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