With “Educated Guess,” her first solo album in more than a decade, Ani DiFranco takes the meaning of a solo artist to another level. Playing all the instruments, accounting for all the vocals, and mixing the entire record on a simple eight-track, reel-to-reel recorder, she returns to her fiercely independent alt-folk roots that will definitely impact her legions of past fans, but which may do very little to convert new followers.Overall, “Educated Guess” is a very solid record. It digs into issues of self, tugging on emotional chords by exploring love in all its forms and tackling usual DiFranco territory – feminism and the government. However, this seems to be the main problem with the record. There seems to be little-to-no evolution in DiFranco’s music. One can hardly blame her – she has carved a nice niche for herself outside of the music industry with her own record label, Righteous Babe Records, but her reliance on being the same old Ani creates a simple, slightly satisfying record out of a potential masterpiece.DiFranco’s work does offer some bright spots, most of which surround her fascination with the facets of love. The track “Swim” surveys the act of gaining one’s independence and the view of one’s self thereafter. It foreshadows a recurring characteristic of the record by including just Ani and her guitar. “Bliss like this,” a jazzy ode to the ebbs and flows of relationships and the desire for a certain type of love, is the strongest of the album’s 14 tracks, offering quite possibly the most personal and poetic lyrics on “Educated Guess.” With “Bubble,” DiFranco questions, metaphorically, the inevitability of love lost with the lyrics “no, I hated to pop the bubble of me and you.” DiFranco comes full circle by expressing her soulful attempt to love again in “Rain Check,” which is one of the most underrated tracks on the album, but will undoubtedly grow on the listener. Even these tracks are not without their shortcomings. The complex, and at times off tune melodies, over-arching song structure, and DiFranco’s own vocal gymnastics snares the focus from the strikingly intimate and forcefully poetic lyrics. Ironically, reading the accompanying CD book jacket makes the elegant wordplay of DiFranco’s lyrics most evident. The rest of the album presents nothing that anyone hasn’t already heard from DiFranco. In “Origami,” DiFranco’s feminist chorus does little but suggest that men are delicate origami figures needing to be unfolded by women. This theme is not in the least fresh and seems a bit overdone. One of the four spoken word tracks, “Grand Canyon,” has the words “I love my country, by which I mean I am indebted joyfully to all the people who have fought to make it right.” While one can still be patriotic even if they’re questioning their government, DiFranco’s spin on the subject offers nothing new. While “Educated Guess” will be a triumph in the circles familiar with DiFranco – her legions of cult-like followers that have lived on her previous releases – the muddling effect of the complex song structures and inconsistent melodies will most likely alienate potential fans who do not comprehend exactly what they are hearing. Creating new converts may not be DiFranco’s aim, but with slight tinkering this record would receive all of its acclaim for its lyrical fundamentals.Allard can be reached at dallard@campustimes.org.

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