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DiFranco reaches wider audiences with 'Little Plastic XCCastle"

Formerly written off as a colorful anomaly within the music industry, Ani DiFranco's tongue-in-cheek rendition of the old standard "Wishin' and Hopin' " from last summer's My Best Friend's Wedding exemplifies her slow but sure rise in mass appeal. Last week's release of Little Plastic Castle will make it even more difficult to ignore this punk-folk sensation. Those who cannot handle her in-your-face style should go back to Alana Davis on 'PST. Everyone else should check out DiFranco's latest offering, yet another successful step in her artistic evolution.

For the die-hards who have been with this talented musician since her early 'grrrl'-and-a-guitar days, DiFranco's transformation has been shocking. The change began with Out of Range and Not A Pretty Girl. Both traded angry, political songwriting for an almost radio-friendly style. Dilate solidified her metamorphosis from obscure 'ndie icon to the multimedia "Righteous Babe" (the name of her record label) she is today.

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What happened in the short time between Not A Pretty Girl and Dilate to thrust her into the limelight? The latter lacks DiFranco's biting social commentary and is instead a uniquely styled album of love songs. She sings the coarse phrase "f—k you and your untouchable face" almost tenderly.

More important than DiFranco's lyrical shift is the state of the current female musician. The "angry chick singer" has become increasingly popular in the guise of Fiona Apple, Meredith Brooks and Alanis Morrissette. This now conventional aspect of the music industry has been part of DiFranco's persona before it became a trend. While it may appear that DiFranco has moved toward the mainstream, in reality, the mainstream has pursued her. In fact, she refused to sign with the major labels that have sought her for years in order to maintain complete creative license.

Is Little Plastic Castle the return to politics some of her fans have been demanding, or could it be called Dilate II? Probably a little of both. If you liked Dilate, you will like Little Plastic Castle. As for politics, most of the non-love songs seem to be about DiFranco's image – who she is and who her fans want her to be.

The title track kicks off the album with a "yee-haw" and blaring horns and proceeds to chastise DiFranco's critical fans: "People talk about my image like I come in two dimensions, like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind. Like what I happen to be wearing the day that someone takes a picture is my new statement for all of womankind."

The singer does not want to assume the role of bisexual political activist that critics and fans attempt to pin on her, nor is she complacent to remain musically stagnant. Indeed, she has experimented quite a bit with Little Plastic Castle, and it pays off.

Horns are present on many of this album's tracks, and dominate the catchy, almost haunting "Deep Dish." The scat-like "Fuel" recalls past triumphs like "Not So Soft" and "The Slant." A studio version of "Gravel" is included, but is not radically different from the live version on last year's Living In Clip. The beautifully painful "Independence Day" is also unchanged from her live performances. However, some concert favorites she introduced over a year ago have undergone makeovers.

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The spoken-word "Pulse" has become a 14 minute example of DiFranco's creativity and growth as an artist. Another improvement is the new jam at the beginning of "Glass House." The rest of this song is basically the same as the concert version and surprisingly has retained its raw edge.

DiFranco often denounces the studio and extols the concert medium. Her frequent improvisation and humor cannot be captured in a sound-booth. That is why her live and recorded performances are intentionally different. The words may not change much, but the feel does.

While Little Plastic Castle serves as a good introduction to DiFranco's music, it fails to capture her stage presence, DiFranco's main draw. The record is diverse enough to appeal to a wide range of musical tastes, but it is a studio album.

The next best thing to an actual show is her live album, Living In Clip. In the context of her other in-studio albums, though, Little Plastic Castle is one of the most innovative and enjoyable. Just don't expect any of these songs to become staples on 'PST. Mainstream is not ready for DiFranco's no-nonsense lyrical approach to life, but for this "grrrl," it may be soon.

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DiFranco was nominated for a Grammy this year, she performs on Late Night with David Letterman in March, and she will voice a character on Fox's King Of The Hill in May.

Despite these high profile appearances, Ani is determined to retain her musical integrity while still growing artistically. As the latest stage in this development, Little Plastic Castle is an impressive collection of songs that proves that even after eight years, DiFranco still finds new ways to captivate her continually growing legion of fans.

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