Ani Difranco is a rare gem in the music industry. Impossible to replicate, immune to commercialization, she is one of the most prolific and innovative artists who has managed to fearlessly resist the urge to find a niche and stagnate in it. Difranco's latest effort, Educated Guess finds her pushing her talents to the extreme, writing, producing, recording, and illustrating every aspect of the album. True to form, she refuses the sterilizing effects of modern technology, recording the whole album on 8-track tape in her living room, capturing the sounds of shimmering rain showers and rumbling trains through miracles of happenstance. Educated Guess explores new musical territory that is challenging enough to engage even the most folk-averse listeners while it maintains a unity of tone which yields a highly listenable work.
There is something in the organic nature of Difranco's music, a quality that becomes fully developed and explored on Educated Guess, which lures the listener in without garish hooks but rather with a tender tone. You can't just listen, you have to crawl inside the songs, snuggle up and hunker down. Her simple production style, her reduction of the orchestration to vocals and guitars, seem to take on an unexpected expansiveness which appears as a slap in the face to the technocracy of the super-producers and the dehumanizing effects of contemporary tempos (not to mention political regimes). Those listeners who lament her shift away from overt political lyrics and traditional folk idioms might come to appreciate these more subtle protests, which is not to say that Difranco is not still the most in-your-face feminist in music today: she is.
Lyrical brilliance is something we've all come to expect from Difranco, and she delivers again, par excellence. The question is whether the music will languish as a mere backdrop to her poetry, or if it will stand its ground and be a thing worth returning to. While much of the material on Educated Guess continues in the direction of her more recent albums, overlaying the idea of the folk song with increasingly complex harmonies and structures, there are a few notable innovations. By limiting herself to the resources at hand, Difranco seems to have discovered a new fullness in both her vocal and guitar-rocking virtuosity. Songs like "Bodily" and "Bliss Like This" are worth listening to if only to stand in awe of her accomplishments as a uniquely talented musician, one who has pushed herself physically beyond the bounds of what we are often given to appreciate.
The album's first peak of ecstasy is as early as the second track. "Swim" pulsates with a rhythm and exuberance that could only be Ani Difranco. The appeal of the song lies in the pop simplicity of its structure and the tenacity of its hook, while the lyrics that play over top of it shine like the stars above that highway-straddled shack. The harmonies take on a remarkably spontaneous quality, and the sense that her performance occurs in a unified moment that must, owing to the fact that she is doing all the backing vocals herself, somehow transcend time.
One of her most innovative moments is on "Raincheck", at which point Difranco has defined her idiom and now begins to undertake the project of setting it on fire. She maintains her witty lyrical flow, but couches it ostentatiously in a sultry rhythm and blues mode. Harnessing all her hard-earned songsmith credentials, she crafts a song that is pure genius, exhibiting a complexity and a melodic brilliance that puts Alicia Keys and Pete Seeger to shame in one fell swoop. Her vocal inflection is soul piercing, and the hook sinks its barbs straight into the pleasure centers of the brain. Moreover, the song demonstrates that her virtuosity is not a mere gimmick: it can run wild or its wildness can be left to strain against the surface of a well-crafted melody.
Perhaps what allows Difranco to explore melody to a greater extent than ever before is her expanded use of spoken-word tracks, allowing her poetry to simply be what it is, not cramming it into a song format. What is most surprising about these poems is that they are not, strictly speaking, poems, or songs, or slams, or raps. Difranco uses spaces like "The True Story of What Was" to explode these distinctions, creating a whole new idiom that defies definition. Harmonies play in the background, percussion taps and jabs, the voice raps and rhymes and flows and stops, and even the physical performance space contributes a verse. Some of the spoken-word tracks drag on, particularly "Grand Canyon", but by the time she gets to it there is a sense that she's earned this space to speak her piece. It may require patience, but I'm glad to expend it, glad that someone is still standing up for ideals, and wishing more were expending their patience here.
While all the songs are worth listening to, not all of them are great, and eventually you'll want to skip some of the longer spoken-word tracks. Yet, all of them cultivate an atmosphere that nurtures, inspires, comforts, and ultimately leaves you with a sense of being grounded. Difranco is possessed of a talent and character that transcends all challenges, a potency that flows out of every pore, even every weakness. Put Educated Guess in your collection, if not as an icon of innovation, then as a beacon of strength. Anyone with an appreciation for politically and emotionally charged folk-pop-jazz aural revolutions will find a home in this album.