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ANI DIFRANCO, UNLOCKING 'LITTLE PLASTIC CASTLE'

There once was a righteous babe by the name of Ani DiFranco who lived in Buffalo and played guitar by age 9. Little did she know that years later she'd have tons of adoring fans across the country and a "Little Plastic Castle" to boot. (Did I mention her own record label, aptly named Righteous Babe Records?)

"Little Plastic Castle" is Ani's 10th full-length album (not counting the '96 EP "More Joy, Less Shame" and a collaboration with Utah Phillips), and a follow-up to the double-live CD "Living in Clip."

"Little Plastic Castle" is all over the map, unlike '96's "Dilate," whose underlying theme was the torture of falling in and out of love. This time around, Ani is broadening the spectrum by experimenting with a horn section with trumpets, trombones and saxes. Don't get me wrong, this album is distinctly Ani; but as her longtime followers know, each album has a different feeling.

The title track and first single is flavored with some ska-like horns giving a lyrically strong song a light, playful feeling. "Fuel," which some may have heard being spun by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder on "Monkey Wrench Radio," takes a stab at the media, the music industry and the art of stereotyping. I think we all get the idea and can relate when she sings, "And I keep hearing the same damn song/Everywhere I go/Maybe I should put a bucket over my head/And a marshmallow in each ear/And stumble around for another dumb numb week/For another humdrum hit song to appear."

Two other songs made early appearances: "Gravel" appeared on "Living in Clip," and "Independence Day" debuted on "Modern Rock Live" in September.

"Deep Dish" sounds like something you would hear on open mike night at a hip coffeehouse. It's a song that comes off as a singsong poetry reading.

"Swan Dive" fits as the story of DiFranco's life. From the line "All the chance I need is/Is one in a million/And they can call me brilliant/If I succeed" to "I've built my own empire out of car tires and chicken wire," the song could easily be an autobiography. But attempting to decipher and interpret Ani's music is just as tricky as categorizing her.

Ani DiFranco is the shining star among today's female artists. She's a chameleon in the true sense. You can't label her, and those who attempt to will only end up eating their words. The great thing about Ani DiFranco is that she's brutally honest and open. All her CDs are opinionated, and rightfully so -- the music gets a point across every time.

Melissa Maino is a freshman at Hamburg High School.

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