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Ani alone
DiFranco jettisons her band and goes eight-track on Educated Guess

When songwriters open up their workbooks, the results can be fascinating. Lou Barlow made a career of it with Sebadoh, using a four-track cassette recorder to create smart pop albums that sounded like demos. Bruce Springsteen took a similar route to capture what’s perhaps the best collection of songs in his career, Nebraska (Columbia). Now Ani DiFranco has holed up with an eight-track reel-to-reel tape recorder, her guitar, and a few other instruments to make Educated Guess (Righteous Babe), an album that seems to be what she’d ordinarily consider demos for a full-band disc. Her approach to her 20th CD isn’t surprising. DiFranco has spent the past year simplifying. She dissolved the band she had worked into a smoothly running juggernaut to return to the stage the way she first began performing — alone. She’s also gotten divorced, and that makes her a free agent professionally and personally.

Not that anything has ever seemed to steer her away from her chosen course. But the same willfulness that helped her turn a small, self-run record label into a cottage industry has sometimes led her into musical traps. The biggest is her staccato vocal phrasing, which has shattered her lyric ideas and robbed her singing of melody. And though her explosive energy and attack on stage are exciting, those qualities untempered have sometimes steamrolled her more thoughtful numbers.

One of Educated Guess’s rewards is its melodies. DiFranco’s voice thrives at the relaxed pace of the haunted "Bodily," in which she sings of reassembling her life in the wake of a failed love. She also provides her own backing vocals; these work in high tones that give the impression of a choir of watchful guardian angels in "Bodily," and they play a decorative, textural role elsewhere. Such sonic layering is crucial to this disc; it has lots of pauses and open spaces, and it needs small splashes of keyboards and other colors to draw listeners in and to compensate for the lack of the momentum with which DiFranco usually commands attention.

Often, however, Educated Guess sounds self-consciously arty. Maybe that’s appropriate. After all, the first cut is "Platforms," a poem that sets the album up as an exercise in self-discovery. That implies something new should be happening in its tracks. And indeed the first song, "Swim," finds DiFranco chirping away over at least one guitar in an alternate tuning that makes her plink like free-improviser Derek Bailey unplugged. Subtle dissonance, sometimes achieved by the powerful hammering she applies to her guitar’s strings, has always been part of her playing, but these tunings, which surface repeatedly, are distracting — even if her point is that she’s dealing with spiky human issues.

Many of the songs are based on one-chord vamps, and that makes it easier for DiFranco to establish grooves. The tack works especially well on "Bliss like This," though when she comes puttering along with a clutch of notes punched out on a Fender Rhodes keyboard, the spell gets broken. Such repeated interruptions are apt to make Educated Guess a favorite only of DiFranco’s hardcore fans. As for the spoken-word performances, they all seem to have been delivered with a slight sneer, which means they sound like polemics. "Grand Canyon," the album’s centerpiece study of an American spirit stained by September 11 and its wake, seems a redundant exercise in concept dropping.

So it goes when songwriters open their workbooks. The nature of albums like this one is that every virtue and misjudgment is laid equally bare. That makes Educated Guess an act of courage, but not the best introduction to a talented artist’s body of work.

Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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