Ani DiFranco
Educated Guess

(Righteous Babe)

Just like it had been announced last year - and coherently with the artistic/personal reasons that had made her start performing solo concerts again - Educated Guess is the album that signals Ani DiFranco's return to the solo dimension on record. And at least for this time this means "really solo": in fact, not only she sang and played everything on the album, she also recorded and mixed it on a vintage reel-to-reel eight track tape recorder. There's mostly vocals and guitars, some pertinent bass lines, some essential Wurlitzer touches on Bliss Like This and not much else: it's a pretty sparse instrumentation, but the relationship between the lead and the background vocals is a lot subtler than what it may sound at first.

Last year, the news about her decision to go back to solo had puzzled me quite a bit: the five people line-up and her new - instrumental, stylistic and vocal - flexibility had produced two fine albums: Up Up Up Up Up Up and To The Teeth (both from 1999); then, the excellent studio double Revelling/Reckoning (2001), the concert audio document So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter (2002) and the Render DVD; while the compact Evolve (2003) had made me feel already nostalgic for the now-gone era.

Well, I guess people will talk of her "going back to her roots", but I respectfully disagree: if this is (obviously) true in terms of sheer numbers, it isn't when the aesthetical dimension is taken into consideration. Her (relatively) recent flexibility and versatility are maintained, first of all - but by no means only - in the vocal department, where she is able to ignore those folk-derived - and too rigid - bar lines she had adhered to in the past, and so making her interpretation and phrasing more elastic and subtle. There's also a new urgency, which has made her adopt a "dirtier" aesthetic dimension (think: Tonight's The Night, some Lennon pages) where "truth" is seen in opposition to (conventional) "beauty"; hence, not-so-precise tunings and overdubbing, which can produce contrasts that at first will make an attentive listener feel a bit perplexed (there are some brief "in between the tracks" interludes where an already established tonality clashes with the track that abruptly segues). All factors that will contribute to make Educated Guess an album whose appeal will be more "selective" than those albums that preceded it.

Educated Guess surely proves not to be lacking in the variety dept., starting with tracks such as the uptempo Bliss Like This and the beautiful soul ballad Rain Check, where it's easy to imagine where the group would have made its entrance. And listening to the triad made of the bossa You Each Time, the folk ballad Animal and the spoken word track Grand Canyon is proof enough to demonstrate how much territory she can cover. Swim, Educated Guess, Bodily and Company are also tracks that's impossible not to mention. As usual, the lyrics are intelligent and perceptive, the narratives rich. Nice illustrated booklet - and make no mistake: hers are still the best-smelling booklets in the business.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2004 | Jan. 18, 2004