By Eleni P. Austin

“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 womankind.”

That’s Ani Difranco, bemoaning her newfound notoriety, on the title track of her 1998 opus, Little Plastic Castle.

Ani is currently on tour. No surprise there, she’s been earning her keep on the road for nearly 35 years. The self-described Lil’ Folksinger (a sobriquet that almost captures the acoustic Folk-Punk sound she began perfecting before she could vote), is also celebrating the 25th anniversary of Little Plastic Castle, which has been remastered and reissued on CD, and is available on vinyl for the first time.


Ani’s ascendence defied all the odds. As an emancipated minor, she began her career at 14. She moved from her hometown of Buffalo to New York City while she was still in her teens, intent on pursuing a career in music. At first, she plied her trade in bars, coffee houses, open mics and women’s communal spaces. Pretty soon, she was crisscrossing the country in her VW Bug, armed with her trusty acoustic guitar and an arsenal of killer songs.

She sold cassettes of her earliest recordings at her shows. Rather quickly, the demand became so great she decided to start her own label, Righteous Babe Records. Her self-titled debut arrived in 1990. Openly bisexual, sometimes rocking a shaved head or colorful dreadlocks and sporting myriad tattoos, her uncompromising style began to resonate. As the 90s’ progressed she collected critical accolades and cultivated a passionate following.

By the mid ‘90s, she’d released a trifecta of stunning records, Out Of Range, Not A Pretty Girl and Dilate. (The latter, a stunningly intimate treatise on her affair with a married man). Suddenly, she was being feted in the pages of mainstream publications like Rolling Stone, Spin, Musician and Ms. Major labels came a’ callin, but Ani stuck with her burgeoning imprint, which afforded her a measure of autonomy and a bigger profit margin.

All told, Ani has released 20 studio albums, the most recent, Revolutionary Love came out in 2021. There’s also been countless live recordings, the best being 1997’s Living In Clip and 2002’s So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter. She’s written a book of poetry, an endearingly intimate memoir, No Walls And The Recurring Dream, and this year she created beautiful children’s book entitled The Knowing. Along with her husband, Mike Napolitano, and her kids, Petah and Dante, she resides in the Bywater section of New Orleans. The newly remastered Little Plastic Castle is available on vinyl for the time in translucent orange or traditional black. The record crackles to life with the one-two punch of the title track and “Fuel.” “…Castle” opens tentatively, just a girl and her banjo-riffic tenor guitar, as Ani sets the scene; “In a coffee shop in a city, which is every coffee shop in every city, on a day which is every day, I pick up a magazine, which is every magazine, read a story, then forgot it right away.” Before she can even exhale, the band leaps into the fray, the arrangement accelerates as punchy horns and roiling bass strut atop a see-saw beat. Cleverly couching her scathing commentary in this joyful noise, she rails against complacency, homophobia and false perceptions. As usual her wry sense of humor commands center-stage. She manages to deftly craft a Koi (yeah, I know…) metaphor to address our collective ennui; “They say Goldfish have no memory, I guess their lives are much like mine, and the little plastic castle is a surprise every time, and it’s hard to say if they’re happy, but they don’t seem much to mind.”

The brass fanfare of first track barely recedes and it feels as though a switch has flipped onto “Fuel.” Ani gives her effects pedal a work-out as rawboned chords, bellicose one minute and lissome the next, line up next to slinky bass lines and a propulsive beat. Ani unspools a tart diatribe on the dumbing down of the culture; “People used to make records as in a record of an event, the event of people making music in a room, now everything’s cross-marketing, it’s about sunglasses and shoes, or guns and drugs, you choose/We got it rehashed, we got it half-assed, we’re digging up all the graves and we’re spitting on the past, and you can choose between the colors of the lipsticks on the whores cuz we know the difference between the font of 20% more and font of teriyaki, you tell me, how does it make you feel? You tell me what’s real.” This track is proof that she presciently anticipated the inevitable Kardashian-ization of America just ahead of it actually happening.

Just as several songs from her previous studio effort, Dilate, chronicled her adulterous involvement with a married man, this album deals with the repercussions. “Loom” finds our heroine wondering if erotic frisson can evolve into real intimacy. Initially, she accompanies herself with rapid-fire acoustic riff-age, challenging her paramour to move past carnal attraction and see her for exactly who she is; “You always got those dark sunglasses, covering half your face, but if you promise to take them off, I won’t squander your gaze/I will be picturesque, I will be nice, I won’t do anything you can’t tell your wife, I will think before I act, I will think twice, just let me see your eyes.” As tensile bass and a walloping beat kick out the jams, Ani’s vocals yip-yop and pogo through the mix. She reluctantly admits some hard truths to the guy and herself; “I always looked into your glasses like a cat looks into a fish tank, but all I could ever see was the specter of me reflected I’m on a monument of friendship that we never erected, I wanted to take up lots of room, I wanted to loom.”

“As Is” opens with a stutter-step rhythm, thready bass and honeyed guitar notes. Along with the feather-light melody, the arrangement goes a long way in camouflaging her mission: to call this guy’s bluff; “And I’ve got no illusions about you, and guess what, I never did, and when I said, I’ll take it, I meant, I meant as is.” Ani hurls bon mots like verbal smart bombs, and they detonate with deadly accuracy; “Just give up and admit that you’re an asshole, you would be in some good company/I think you’d find that your friends would forgive you, or maybe I am just speaking for me.”

Ani’s caustic wit is on full display with “Gravel.” Her trademark staccato guitar riffs are tethered to barbwire bass lines and a galloping gait. She does her best to extinguish the embers of an old flame, but even as she goes for the um, jugular, she still succumbs to his dubious charms; “Let me count the ways that I abhor you, and you were never a good lay, and you were never a good friend, but oh, oh, what else can I say, I adore you.” The tempestuous arrangement mirrors her ambivalence as guitars thrash and swirl. And even though her ex seems to win this round, she gets the last laugh; “…Maybe you can keep me from ever being happy, but you’re not going to stop me from having fun.” This record is, as the kids say, all killer, no filler. But two magnificent cuts soar high above the rest. Two Little Girls opens with the kind of swirly guitar notes that Joni Mitchell would label “chords of inquiry,” bookended by plush keys, pliant bass and clackity beat. The nuanced narrative finds Ani reconnecting with a former love; “Two little girls growing out of their training bras, this little girl breaks furniture, this little girl breaks laws, two girls together, just a little less alone, this little girl cried wee-wee-wee all the way home.” But currently her friend’s comfort and is achieved at the end of a syringe. Unlike Neil Young’s “The Needle And The Damage Done,” this is no ragged post-mortem. Ani’s frenetic fretwork speeds up as circumstances reach dire proportions; “…I guess I’ll just stand here with my back up against the wall, while you’ve distilled your whole life down to a 911 call.” With a few simple turns of phrase she manages to dial into the anger, terror and heartbreak that accompanies addiction. The song concludes ambiguously, much like life itself.

Then there’s “Swan Dive” part declaration of independence, part mission statement, it evolves into a passionate cri de Coeur as she sheepishly notes “I think that I’m happy, I think that I’m blessed.” Slashing acoustic riffs wash over fusible pump organ, bendy bass lines and a skittery beat. Even as she tries to outrun her demons, successfully navigate the tsuris of heterosexual love and still make time to “Build my own empire, out of car tires and chicken wire,” Ani knows deep down, it’s just her against the world. There’s an urgency here that (once again) connects her directly to her fans. Her struggle is ours, maybe the details are different but whenshe reveals that “I’ve got a lack of information, but I got a little revelation and I’m climbing up on the railing, trying not to look down, I’m going to do my best swan dive into shark-infested waters, I’m going to pull out my tampon, and start splashing around,” she must instinctively know she can count on an army of righteous babes crashing in the surf right behind her. As the cyclonic guitar riffs ebb and flow, matching the prickly epiphanies, the whole enterprise powers down on a dime.

Other compelling numbers include “Deep Dish” which whips up a potent combo-platter that fuses woozy, Ska-flavored horns and Spaghetti Western guitars to a Dylanesque, shaggy dog story. Then there’s the fractious dissonance of “Glass House,” which is powered by wiggly wah-wah guitar and a sideways cha-cha-cha beat. Finally, there’s the angular grace of “Pixie.” Between her caressing vocals, shimmery keys and disarmingly sweet chorus, the song offers a vivid illustration of Ani smilin’ through the shit.

The album closes with the stunning diptych of “Independence Day” and “Pulse.” The former is stripped-down, just languid guitars indolent bass lines and Ani’s slightly tremulous vocals. Her reluctance is contradicted by her need to unpack a plethora of conflicting feelings; “So many sheep, I quit counting, sleepless and embarrassed about the way I feel, trying to make mole hills out of mountains, building base camp at the bottom of a really big deal/And did I ever tell you I stopped eating, when you stopped calling me, I was cramped up and shitting rivers for weeks and pretending I was finally free.” Herein lies the essential appeal of Ani (Ms. Difranco to you!). She appears here emotionally naked, but underneath, her fans still detect a steely tenacity at her core, a courage of her convictions that allows her the independence to bare her soul.

Whooshy keys give way to tilt-a-whirl guitar chords, fluttery concertina, spidery bass lines and a trap-kit beat on the latter. Ani’s conversational, “just-the-facts-ma’am” reportage can’t disguise the moments of vulnerability that slip between the cracks; “You crawled into my bed like some giant insect and I found myself spellbound, that night at the sight of you there/Beautiful and grotesque and all the rest of that bug stuff, bluffing your way into my mouth, behind my teeth, reaching for my scars that night we got kicked out of two bars and laughed our way home.” Equal parts exhilarating and hypnotic, she speaks to being “unable to save ourselves from the quaint tragedies we invent and undo, from the stupid circumstances we slalom through.” On the extended break, Jazz trumpeter Jon Hassell unfurls an achingly melancholy solo, like a Seagull making lazy circles in the sky. The rest of the players simply ripple and glow underneath. Soon enough, Ani’s wordless vocalese intwines with lowing trumpet, drawing the track to a close. Clocking in at just at just over 14 minutes, it breezes by with a blink of an eye, marking an ambitious end to a landmark record.

Little Plastic Castle documented a very specific time for Ani. It felt as though her life was happening in a fishbowl. Intense scrutiny and rigid expectations seemed to accompany her newfound fame. But she truly rose to the challenge. She managed to harness the recording studio without sacrificing the spontaneous appeal and raw magnetism of her live shows. Revisiting these songs, a quarter of a century later, they’re as visceral and uncompromising as ever. Much like the Lil’ Folksinger herself.