Reviewed by Graham Reid

Ani DiFranco

Up Up Up Up Up Up

(Shock)

It's odd US singer-songwriter and righteous babe DiFranco - who plays the Powerstation on Tuesday January 19 with her touring band - isn't better known.

Over albums which have rocked out, been touched with folk and Austin-country colours, and included spoken word sections and samples, she has been one of the most consistently interesting performers of the past decade.

For want of a better description Billboard calls her a punk/folk poetess, others hear her as a rock musician who sometimes plays slow songs on percussive, acoustic guitars.

She's run her own label (Righteous Babe) for almost a decade and released at least an album a year: some have been largely solo outings, others with taut electric bands. She also provided the musical settings for an album with eccentric raconteur and writer Utah Phillips and released remix EPs.

You suspect if she'd been on a hip label like Matador or 4AD (alongside Liz Phair or Kristin Hersch) she'd be an indie star.

Her name is getting out there though: recently she's appeared on the soundtracks to My Best Friend's Wedding, The Jackal and All Over Me. Stateside she's the host of a soon-to-screen four part PBS documentary The Mississippi River: River of Song.

On the evidence of her last album, Little Plastic Castle, and this rapid follow-up, her time has come.
Castle typically covered diverse stylistic bases through to the closing track, a 14-minute jam with ambient trumpeter Jon Hassell.

This one covers territory too - and the closer is a 13-minute loose-limbed and slightly surreal acousto-funk jam. She's no Patti Smith in the improv, but she's no slouch either.

This time out she's mostly on acoustic guitar and with most of the band coming here (upright bass, Wurlitzer organ), but it's a slightly harder call than the user-friendly and more rock-oriented Castle.

There's a cooler, more reflective mood at work here and, as always, DiFranco's got something to say: Angry Anymore is an open letter to the mother she grew up with who "taught me how to wage a cold war with quiet charm."
"Now I've seen both parents ... and as each year goes by I know how my father must have felt ..."

The title track is pitched partly between a delicate ballad and a spoken word piece, and over holy organ and chiming, delayed electric guitar she observes "God's work isn't done by God, it's done by people."

And it uncompromisingly opens with an address to her country in 'Tis of Thee in which she sings of running blacks out of town and people "taking swings at each other on talkshow tv."

"We'll never live long enough to undo everything they've done to you," she says wearily.

Later on Come Away From It she gently pleads with a lover to abandon the relentless search for something better that comes from "a bitter rock remedy" in a little plastic bag.

Interest, as always, is also kept high by the treatments she gives songs and her vocals: Angel Food works over a weird vocal loop, a stab of Booker T organ and tosses in some impromptu sentences, elsewhere she sings through peculiar vehicles (water cooler and space phone anyone?), and there are some unnerving backing vocals (Virtue).

Think recent Suzanne Vega meeting Liz Phair at a party where producer Mitchell Froom (Tom Waits, Crowded House) is in charge of remixing the conversation and you're somewhere close.

DiFranco's star has been in steady ascendancy and the evidence here (again) is she's not to be missed at the Powerstation.****

Mad Professor

Afrocentric Dub

(Ariwa/Chant)

Archetypal bone-shaking dub by one of the foremost UK practitioners of the dark and smoky art which is timely on two counts: it's coming into the season for such mind-altering music, and the Prof is touring again.
He'll be at Sweetwaters on January 23 and the Powerstation a week later.

Before then here's a 14-track primer, the fifth chapter in his Black Liberation series which will, under optimum conditions, liberate your brain from the rest of your body.***

Estrellas de Arieto

Los Heroes

(World Circuit/Elite)

Last year, perhaps as a result of Ry Cooder's superb Buena Vista Social Club album recorded in Havana, the richly textured sound of Cuban music infiltrated discerning households everywhere.

Suddenly it seemed septuagenarian pianist Ruben Gonzalez was a star, the Auckland film festival programmed a doco about other old boys and those who could afford it bought the elaborate four CD box set I am Time which came in what looked like a cigar box.

This double disc could serve as the next logical step, or an introduction to the life-affirming charms of this music which blends various traditions - Spanish, West African, Cuban folk, US jazz - and offers a heady concoction.

Los Heroes are a supergroup, for want of a better term: pianists Gonzalez and Jesus Rubalcaba, jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and altoist Paquito D'Rivera, bassist Fabia Garcia ...

The 56 page booklet which comes with the collection tells the story behind these historic 1979 recordings when, over five days, the cream of Cuban musicians got together to record what became five albums for the state-run Arieto label (hence the title, Stars of Arieto).

The music here has more in common with jazz than folkloric music. Most tracks clock in around the 10-minute mark and there are plenty of spaces for improvisation which guys like violinist Pedro Depestre take full advantage of. And Gonzalez isn't averse to quoting widely from Western classical music.

But mostly this is vigorous, dexterous music high on the mutual enjoyment of the musicians which, especially under these days of summer sun, is guaranteed to put a broad smile on your face.

Yes, it's historic and it may even be a collector's item. But it also gets the repeat-play button. And that's the truest test of all. ****

-Weekend TimeOut