Ani DiFranco, the ever-prolific singer-songwriter-record mogul-Queen of Indie Rock, released To the Teeth in November of 1999, her second album in less than a year, on her own Righteous Babe Records. It’s an album that completes the decade after 11 studio albums, a double disc of live material, and two recordings with folk storyteller Utah Phillips.
Since DiFranco’s self-titled debut in 1990, the artist has evolved from feminist folksinger to alterna-punk diva, adding instruments to her repertoire almost as quickly as she changes her haircolor. To the Teeth is a natural progression after Up Up Up Up Up Up, an album that, at the time, seemed like an impersonal indulgence. But DiFranco bares her stretch marks for us all to see where (and how) she’s grown, and To the Teeth is our reward. Maceo Parker performs on several tracks after opening for the folksinger on tour, adding a jazzy jamming quality to the album. Prince lends his distinctive vocal-style to “Providence,” a song reminiscent of DiFranco’s previous tortured love songs (“It’s a narrow margin/Just room enough for regret/In the inch and a half between Hey, how ya been? And Can I kiss you yet?”).
It’s almost strangely refreshing to hear fleeting comparisons to Alanis Morissette on “Freakshow,” and Sheryl Crow on “The Arrival’s Gate,” an electronica-meets-banjo ditty that doesn’t fall short of brilliance. “Hello Birmingham,” a song about a snipered abortion doctor, is a beautiful political ballad, a feat few could pull off. The same can be said for the title track, although, as usual, the power and magic of her live performance hasn’t been captured in the studio version. “Soft Shoulder” is a gorgeous song that finds DiFranco serenading a long lost lover, while “Wish I May” reminds us of the cynic she is at heart (“This is not who I meant to be/This is not how I meant to feel”).
To the Teeth is a refreshing glimpse into DiFranco’s imperfect evolution and helps us watch her creative journey from her last zygote of an album. Gone is the jaded view of the music industry, the tortured darkness of 1996’s Dilate, and the impassioned anger of Not a Pretty Girl, arguably her most cohesive work. In its place is a bona fide folk-rock album by a wiser, mellowed woman.
To the Teeth, like most of her studio albums, is best taken as part of a whole. Her progression is best understood within the context of her immense catalog that will, in all likelihood, be most appreciated years in the future. The first line of DiFranco’s twelfth studio album declares that “the sun is setting on the century,” and it is a testament to why we should all watch where she grows next.