Grating does not equal great for DiFranco

by Vivian Chung | 1/21/04 6:00am

Ani DiFranco is back with "Educated Guess," her first solo recording in a decade. The album is probably best described as homemade. It's like the birthday cake you bake at home, which never looks as nice as the ones you buy at the bakery.

Not surprisingly then, "Educated Guess" was recorded in DiFranco's home on an old analog reel and self-produced. The result is a CD that remains unpolished yet powerful.

The album is a unique blend of different forms of art. The package includes reproductions of DiFranco's sharpie and white out art. Four of the 14 tracks are recordings of DiFranco reading her poems with light background voices.

The longest and most powerful poem track is "Grand Canyon." DiFranco's interest and agenda is clearly presented in this track when she says "Why can't all decent men and women/call themselves feminists?" DiFranco's recitation is also accompanied by pockets of spontaneous electric guitar riffs.

The title track, "Animal," "Bliss Like This" and "Company" are tracks that stand out more than others on the album.

"Educated Guess" shows off Difranco's skill as a guitarist, with an eclectic mix of strums and strong fingerpicking on the acoustic guitar. It is a soothing song that slowly grows on you. It starts off rather uplifting but unfortunately slowly drowns out in the end until it becomes silent for a few seconds before introducing DiFranco crooning depressive tones to mismatched electric guitar jams.

"Company" is a classically beautiful song in the mold of DiFranco's earlier work. It also shows off DiFranco's masterful ability to blend her voice and guitar together. When she wants to stress her lyrics, she carefully drowns out the guitar and adds it in back later.

"Bliss Like This" is special because, unlike other tracks, there is a clear regular beat line that resembles a classic jazz track with an acoustic upright bass mixed with some guitar chords. It is much more uplifting, and less heavy than other tracks on this album. At times though, you have to wonder why DiFranco couldn't have chosen to produce an album a little more comfortable on the ears. It isn't that it is loud, it's more that everything seems harsh and out of tune. Even DiFranco's usually mellow sweet voice comes out to be unnaturally high pitched in several songs.

"Swim" is a good example of a song that starts off okay with average instrumental introduction, then is completely ruined by the introduction of the artist's voice. For some reason DiFranco decides to sing in a tweaky 12-year-old girl voice which makes it incredibly high strung and unbearably annoying.

Despite its shortcomings and rather rough edges, "Educated Guess" is a one of the kind album. There are few entertainers who sing about their political or social agenda so explicitly as DiFranco. Rarely do we get singers who bother singing about anything but sex and love. DiFranco is incredibly honest in this way. The sense is that there is a fascinating individual within the album. She gives you not only music, but poetry and art, even if it isn't terribly refined.