In the kaleidoscopic career of songstress/feminist/activist Ani DiFranco, there have been countless shifts, both subtle and significant. You might even say it's these slight alterations in the course of her personal and professional life that have given her music such wide appeal. With her fearless voice and poetic soul, DiFranco's now 21-album-long career has given shape to those moments, defining and encapsulating change for herself and her fans. Educated Guess
is no exception. If her career continued through another 21 albums, DiFranco's current release would undoubtedly remain a major turning point.
Having abandoned her backing band, DiFranco steps out solo with Educated Guess. Not only did she play all the instruments here, she also did the recording and mixing. As marginally novel as this may be in the indie world, however, in DiFranco's case her complete command over the album carries particularly notable effects. Primarily, Educated Guess can be differentiated from previous releases by its extensive use of vocal layering. Through the wonders of modern technology, DiFranco's single voice is transformed into many. When paired with her characteristically unusual inflections, however, the chorus of background singers can sound disconcertingly affected.
It's probably no coincidence that vocal layering techniques appear in such a truly solo effort; it's an effective method of fleshing out what might have otherwise been a very sparse and intimate sound. Yet, therein lies the problem. The use of so many voices creates distance between DiFranco and her listeners, occasionally detracting from her gorgeous melodies and frank, poetic lyrics. It's a testament to both her music and words that they nonetheless shine through.
DiFranco's newfound solitary stance translates into songs of firm independence. "Platforms", "The True Story of What Was" and the poignantly political "Grand Canyon" highlight DiFranco's near-notorious poetry/lyrics via spoken-word delivery. Meanwhile, her guitar-playing is better than ever, from the fierce attack of "Bubble" to the loose and leisurely strumming on the title track. However, it is the disarmingly beautiful "Animal" that best demonstrates DiFranco's talents. Over gentle fingerpicking, DiFranco tackles freedom and peace and suburban spread and religion and imperialism all at once. Far from being pretentiously cerebral,her rendering is subtle and heartfelt: "You have to believe that mercy has its own country / and that it's round and borderless / and then you just grow wings / and rise above it all / like there where that hawk is circling / above that strip mall."
With songs like this, it's no wonder that DiFranco has built such a following throughout her chameleon-like career. While Educated Guess may not be her best album to date (a near impossible-to-achieve expectation for an artist 21 albums in), it marks yet another transformation of her talents.