February 5, 2004

Ani DiFranco: Guess Again

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Ladies and gentlemen, Ani has left the basement.

Indeed, Miss DiFranco has shed her band, recording studio, and even manager-husband to give new meaning to the term “solo-act.” After locking herself in her Buffalo, New York home with nothing but an 8-track recorder and a guitar, our blue-haired mistress of feminist rock has finally emerged with Educated Guess, a fourteen-track exploration of her ability to not only play music, but also painstakingly edit and master each song.

It’s no surprise that every critic from New York to Los Angeles went wild after hearing of Ani’s self-proclaimed “return to her roots,” pouncing on the idea that her new release would somehow manage to spit in the face of the music industry. Reminded of the fact that her roots involved a drummer, bassist, and recording studio, I can’t deny that there is something courageous about Ani tackling her characteristically spastic rhythms and tongue-twisting lyrics without the help of the dozens of backup musicians she’s previously enlisted.

Nevertheless, I refuse to give her a gold star for simply pushing the red button on a tape recorder, and however noble DiFranco’s gesture may be, the album still manages to fall flat on its face. Boredom doesn’t begin to describe what I felt while attempting to enjoy this. The songs on Educated Guess embody monotony more characteristic of that unkempt hipster you see in your local independently-owned coffee shop during Open Mic Night, pouring his little heart out on his Fender acoustic. Sure, the kid is nice to listen to as you sip your frappucino and read your latest Vonnegut purchase, but the minute he brings up the five dollar CDs he’s selling in the back after his set, you’ve already focused your attention on bigger and better things.

Ani’s new release works in much the same way, succeeding as pleasant background music, but turning you into a bewildered mess once you actually tune in. By sacrificing structure for “roots,” Ani has created a rambling progression of songs as forgettable as its predecessor, leaving the listener unable to tell when one track has ended and the next has begun. Aside from the lack of memorable tunes, Educated Guess has no shortage of discordant catastrophes. For one, the near-flawless vocals we heard on previous albums have become disappointingly inconsistent. Harmonies attempted on tracks such as “Bodily” are terrifying, while songs like “Company” and “Swim” are sprinkled with noticeable sharps and flats. The quality of recording has also muted the beauty of DiFranco’s guitar, which alternates between being so jarring that we can hear nothing else and simply fading into the background mid-song. And don’t even get me started on the scattered spoken word pieces, three works of awkward prose accompanied by a combination of barking, laughing, and yodeling that left me confused and frightened.

Having been an Ani-fan for a good six years now, I refuse to be entirely negative about the woman’s latest attempt. Several songs are surprisingly enjoyable. The style of “Bliss Like This” is reminiscent of her more jazzy work on albums such as To The Teeth, while title-track “Educated Guess” is one of the few melodies with a discernable chorus, complemented by a breath-taking three-part harmony.

But are two good songs enough to excuse the overall tedium of Educated Guess? Perhaps such an album would be acceptable had Miss DiFranco not been able to boast almost two decades of folk-rock notoriety. Although the girl’s tastes are ever-changing, fans never cease to be impressed by such an eclectic style. How can we forget the quiet beauty of songs such as “Not So Soft” and “Joyful Girl,” the anger of “Shameless” or the desperation of “Gravel”? Each album she’s released has had its fair share of unforgettable lyrics and melodies, and it’s no surprise that her live show resembles more of a gigantic sing-along than an actual performance. Keeping this powerful r