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Little Plastic Castle

Fish imagery abounds in the lyrics and packaging of Ani DiFranco's new album. Despite little or no airplay and her refusal to sign on anyone else's dotted line (Little Plastic Castle is the 12th release on her own Righteous Babe label since 1990), Ani's popularity has grown by leaps and bounds -- and with great visibility comes great scrutiny. It's no wonder DiFranco poses in a fishbowl on the CD's back cover: she must feel as if she's living inside one.

So is this Ani's fame-sucks album, the way Dilate was her breaking-up-sucks album? Not quite. She pretty much gets that out of the way in the opening title track: "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 my picture/is my new statement for all of womankind." From there, LPC is a thematically diverse and musically adventurous disc.

Despite her often bitter lyrics (check out "Gravel" or "As Is" on the new album), DiFranco has never fit comfortably into the angry-white-female category. For one thing, she takes too much obvious pleasure in making music (this is especially clear on last year's double-scoop concert album Living in Clip). Moping and seething aren't her bread and butter. As she points out in "Pixie": "i'm the color me happy girl/miss live and let live/and when they're out for blood/i always give." Ani is about meeting life full in the face, with a laugh.

DiFranco is also about contradictions. Always up-front about being a messily conflicted human being, Ani seems to question the happy-go-lucky stance in "Pixie." "come on, kids," she advises, "let's all hold hands/and pretend we're having a good time"; the refrain of the song is "just suck up and be nice." Are we supposed to take this as irony? Probably, but in the same song she racks on the fake-goth kids "playing at death...with their ghostly makeup/and their heroin breath." This songwriter has never been easy to pin down. Her philosophy is best summed up on her Not a Pretty Girl anthem "32 Flavors."

Musically, Ani is both tight and loose, as usual: spontaneous-sounding and scrappy, but immaculately structured, with Ani's tricky but beautifully controlled acoustic-guitar flights underlining her alternately jubilant and soothing vocals. One experiment on the album doesn't come off: "Deep Dish," where DiFranco gives the floor to a stoned-sounding guy reading witless truisms. If the intent was satire, it would've been funnier if Ani had read it; if it's intended seriously, it's dumb. Some critics have bitched about the final 14-minute track "Pulse," but I liked it; it's a good trance-out climax.

"Pulse" also shows Ani at her most reflective. Is it a love-conquers-death poem? Or a death-conquers-everything-so-let's-live-in-the-moment ode? Probably both. Little Plastic Castle is Ani at her most divided -- a neat split in focus between the larger sea and the little fish that swim around doing the human thing. And there she is in the fishbowl, poised between two looming cats (the media and major record labels?), still refusing to take the corporate bait.