Saturday, January 7, 2012

Ending My Ani DiFranco Experience With An Educated Guess, Another Mediocre Album!

The Good: General musical sound, A couple lyrics.
The Bad: Packaging, Short duration, Indistinctive songs, Stories between songs wear thin.
The Basics: With another disappointing album, Ani DiFranco mumbles through and produces over her own lines on Educated Guess.

As my final dip into the pool of works of Ani DiFranco, I find myself listening to Educated Guess on high replay, one of DiFranco's lesser known or reviewed works. While this was her thirteenth album and one of her studio albums - not to mention one of her more commercial successes (it peaked at 37 on the Billboard 200) - it is remarkably unmemorable and returns DiFranco to a vocal tradition that is less listenable than other works from around the same time. Oddly enough, the album also returns DiFranco to a more folk-rock tradition in the style and format. Still, the album is shorter, illustrating perhaps some cracks in her creative process that fail to be filled by the songs here.

Educated Guess is a combination of whined out songs and mumbled stories that are inaudible at the same levels at which the rest of the album is heard. The work is utterly lacking in discernible lines or melodies that can be carried by those who might care. This continues a troubling trend in DiFranco's works where her instrumentals drown out the vocals and her lyrics are mumbled through in a way that is virtually unlistenable. At least on her early albums, DiFranco had something to say and she made sure her listeners could understand it!

With fourteen tracks, clocking out at 48:15, Educated Guess contains eleven songs and three stories (like the seventeen second opening "Platforms") and the album is definitely the work of Ani DiFranco, who at her worst is talented with many instruments. In addition to writing all fourteen tracks, she performs the lead vocals on each track on the album. As well, this is a creative explosion for Ani DiFranco the musician in that she plays at least five instruments on the album, including acoustic and electric guitars, bass, percussion and the electric piano. She also has her usual control on the production end, where she produced, engineered, and mixed the album. In all of her creative endeavors, one suspects she could have made sure a track list made it onto the album packaging, but no such luck here.

That said, the creative control DiFranco exerts is extensive, but unfortunately does not yield anything in the way of incredible results, unless one enjoys music that is moaned through (the track Educated Guess), presented with annoying nasal vocals ("Origami") or produced such that the instrumentals completely overwhelm the vocals (as she does on her song "You Each Time"). The best thing DiFranco has going for her on the album Educated Guess are her instrumental performances. Unfortunately for her - and the listener - the mix of guitars, bass, electric piano and mild percussion seldom yields a recognizable tune.

Even worse, many of the songs on the album sound alike, lending a boring homogenous quality to the overall album experience. So, for example, "Bodily," "You Each Time" and "Bliss Like This" all begin with vacillating guitar fingerings that sound like the lead-up to a gunfight in an old Western film. Regardless, they all sound like one another and that is problematic, especially when one listens to the album on high replay.

As annoying are the vocals. DiFranco engineers her voice to echo on tracks like "You Each Time" and where her natural voice and the production elements swap sides throughout the album is questionable, leading listeners to ask the question of how good a singer DiFranco is at this point. The argument can be made that it doesn't matter; when one chooses to perform or produce their vocals to sound like they are singing out their nose, the net result is a pretty lousy album and unfortunately, that is what the listener is subjected to on Educated Guess.

I continue to argue, though, that Ani DiFranco is an able poet and on Educated Guess, she is not bad in that regard. DiFranco still has a pretty strong sense of imagery and when one reads her lines "As dolls go I am broken / And you could just let that get us off the hook / But from under the umbrella of the unspoken / I see you giving me that look / Baby, you're right as rain about the benefits / But you might be wrong about the costs / And it feeds my heart that you came looking for me / But I'm thinkin' I need to stay lost" ("Rain Check") one has a strong sense of the emotions and place in life that such lines come from. DiFranco ably expresses strong human emotions with a poetry that is hard to compare to others in the pop-rock field (which is probably why she is labeled as indie rock).

As well, DiFranco has a fearless sense of sex and sensuality to some of her songs. "Bodily," for example, is aching for the physical sense of what a breakup does to a person. She also has a powerful ability to sing about the political, as she does on "Grand Canyon." On that song, she has a wonderful sense of irony when she sings "I love my country / By which I mean / I am indebted joyfully / To all the people throughout its history / Who have fought the government to make right / Where so many cunning sons and daughters / Our foremothers and forefathers / Came singing through slaughter / Came through hell and high water / So that we could stand here . . ." ("Grand Canyon"). DiFranco is not one to simply accept history the way it appears in the books and instead, she combats the normal rhetoric with her strong sense of balance and realism. This is something few artists dare to do musically and DiFranco deserves some credit for at least giving it a try.

That said, not all of her poems are even winners. Take, for example, "Animal," a song plagued by such predictable rhymes as "Looking out through my eyes / At all the traffic on the road to nowhere / At all the shiny stuff around to buy / At all the wires in the air." As well, on songs like "Bliss Like This," she rhymes the same words over and over again with themselves and that, too, is tiresome.

At the end of the day, though, Educated Guess is pretty bland pop-rock that never got popular and the real snag of it is that what might be good is virtually unlistenable given the production or the singing. Fans of Ani DiFranco, fans of music, deserve more. And for those who challenged me for years to give Ani DiFranco a fair shake, I think a month of listening to her albums qualifies and for all those who insist she is the greatest musical artist on the scene today, I gladly offer a second opinion.

The best track is "You Each Time," the low point is "Akido," one of the spoken word tracks.

For other Ani DiFranco works, please check out my reviews of:
Ani DiFranco
Not So Soft
Like I Said (Songs 1990-91)
Out Of Range
Not A Pretty Girl
Living In Clip
Little Plastic Castle
Revelling / Reckoning
So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
| | |

No comments:

Post a Comment