The first and only time I saw Ani DiFranco I found myself utterly charmed and with a little bit of a crush. At times growly and stomping her boot-clad feet, at other times silly, giggly, and cute, Ani was the tomboy I always found myself attracted to. She could be fiercely feminine, yet comfortable hanging with the guys. That description fits the majority of female artists I tend to listen to including Liz Phair, P.J. Harvey, Aimee Mann, and to a lesser extent Bjork and Natalie Merchant. Ani was and is definitely the most indie of the bunch having started Righteous Babe Records with her debut in 1990. (Aimee Mann has since followed suit after years with big labels with her own, SuperEgo Records). Educated Guess is Aniï¿½s fourteenth album (not including two live releases, a couple with Utah Phillips, and a handful of EPï¿½s), and a return to her DIY roots.
This album is completely and totally all Ani. It is as she put it once in her song ï¿½Fuelï¿½, a record of an event / the event of people / playing music in a room. The ï¿½peopleï¿½, this time around however, are Ani. This album is truly DIY in that for the first time ever, she played every instrument, recorded the album, and mixed it all herself in her home studios in Buffalo and New Orleans. She even did some of the graphic design and photography in the packaging! This is not the most impressive feat of this album, however. The most impressive thing is the music itself. The first track, ï¿½platformsï¿½, as well as ï¿½the true story of what wasï¿½, ï¿½grand canyonï¿½, and ï¿½akimboï¿½, is a return to spoken word which was and is a major part of her early work. When the second track, the first with music, actually hits, it is a jangly, discordant, Tom Waits-ish, carnival like sound that is a bit unsettling. Starting the album this way, for any major label, would be market suicide. For Ani, however, it is her challenge to the listener. She is, to me at least, saying, ï¿½Iï¿½m not going to make you comfortable with catchy hooks or poppy sounds, youï¿½re going to have to pay attention to appreciate this.ï¿½ And pay attention we should.
There is a tangible pain evident in this album. From the pain of her divorce with her longtime partner, (whom she refers to as ï¿½Goat Boyï¿½) to her frustration with hypocrisy in politics, the songs on this record express it for all to hear. I felt the urge to somehow try to get in touch with Nick Hornby upon hearing the title track. In his Songbook, Mr. Hornby expresses his remorse over the fact that Ani hadnï¿½t written anything as beautiful as ï¿½You Had Timeï¿½ since, and while I feel that ï¿½educated guessï¿½ doesnï¿½t quite plumb the artistic depths that ï¿½You Had Timeï¿½ does, I do feel that it comes damn close musically. The beauty of ï¿½You Had Timeï¿½ lies in the music and lyrics, the piano finding its slow rhythm, cascading into a quiet guitar as she deals with the remnants of a broken relationship. Similar songs are abundant on this album.
Aniï¿½s divorce takes center stage in songs like ï¿½bodilyï¿½, ï¿½you each timeï¿½, ï¿½companyï¿½, and ï¿½origamiï¿½ as she sings, I know men are delicate / Origami creatures / Who need women to unfold them / hold them when they cry / but I am tired of being your savior / and I am tired of telling you why. It seems in Aniï¿½s grief and recovery she has returned to that which she knows best, the roots from whence she came.
I was introduced to Ms. DiFrancoï¿½s work late; about the time her album Dilate, her eighth album, was released. I found her at her peak, having penned such songs as the heartbreaking ï¿½Untouchable Faceï¿½, the quietly raging ï¿½Napoleonï¿½, and the rocking ï¿½Shamelessï¿½. (Ok, I didnï¿½t so much ï¿½findï¿½ her as I was indoctrinated into the club by a former girlfriend.) Each successive album fell further down the slippery slope until I finally just stopped caring about her new albums. And this is only one of the reasons why this album is so great. It is the Ani that I came to appreciate after purchasing her back catalog, especially from the underrated album Out of Range.
The high point of this album is reached in the song ï¿½animalï¿½. With a little bit of the droning similar to The Smithsï¿½ ï¿½Meat is Murderï¿½, Ani brings out her political side which became most well known with her backing of Ralph Nader in the 2000 election, and then her letter to the editor of The Nation magazine asking people not to vote for him to avoid being governed by W. Oops. I admired her for this. She is smart enough to know and support what she believes, but also to know when something is such an impossibility that other directions must be taken to avoid the worst possible outcome.
She continues along political lines in the poem / song ï¿½grand canyonï¿½, another standout track. It is her anthem to feminism, and should be adopted as just that, an anthem dedicated to a word that has somehow become a slur from the right. Little do they realize that when they point and shout ï¿½Feminist,ï¿½ they are feeding women strength and power. Finally, the liner notes also feature three poems not spoken on the CD, ï¿½clip clop clackï¿½, the terse and brilliant ï¿½literalï¿½, and ï¿½the interviewï¿½, a much more interesting bonus feature to this disc than most major labels who just give us a DVD with one video that we have seen umpteen times already, or an extra disc with only two songs on it that we will never end up playing.
As with most albums that end up to be my favorites, I had to really listen to this album twice all the way through before I really began to be intrigued by it and really appreciate it. For those who have never heard her music before, this would be a good album to start with. For those who had listened to her previously and gave up as I had, rejoice! Sheï¿½s back and better than ever! For those who never stopped listening, well, Iï¿½ll bet youï¿½re just grinning like an idiot and thinking ï¿½I told you so.ï¿½
John Wesley Harding – Confessions of St. Ace
Mary Lou Lord – Got No Shadow
Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville