Ani DiFranco

Knuckle Down

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Fans that were lukewarm to Ani DiFranco 's bare-bones, self-produced Educated Guess will be pleased to learn that the notoriously independent artist has delegated half of her 13th studio recording's production duties to fellow singer/songwriter Joe Henry. Knuckle Down combines all of the spite, spark, compassion and wordy observation of the DiFranco of old with the kind of constructive hindsight that can only come from years spent blazing your own trail -- the knotty title cut ends with DiFranco musing "I think I'm done gunnin to get closer to some imagined bliss/I gotta knuckle down/just be ok with this" then wistfully replies "'course that star struck girl is already someone I miss." It's a brave opening statement, and one that permeates Knuckle Down throughout. Henry, along with guest musicians Todd Sickafoose, Julie Wolf and fellow Righteous Babe recording artist Andrew Bird never intrude on DiFranco's signature percussive guitar work and Joni Mitchell motor-mouth, rather they paint lovingly the complex world around them, reigning in the artist's penchant for long-winded intros and meandering mid-sections with a subtlety that does wonders for standout tracks like "Sunday Morning" and "Studying Stones" -- the latter features some of Bird's divine whistling. Knuckle Down may not have the machine-gun edge and maverick intensity that fueled her early-'90s heydays, but it spares nobody -- including DiFranco herself -- from interrogation, and with its creative arrangements, smart pacing and refined production, it ranks as the artist's most concise and accessible release to date.

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