One Woman Show
Ani Difranco Goes It Alone On Educated Guess

I had to make sure, so I checked.

“Hey Gary,” I said, speaking to my former roommate and frequent traveling companion.


“I hope this isn’t a stupid question,” I said, “but this airport we’re in, it wouldn’t by any chance be moving back and forth right now, would it?”

“No it wouldn’t,” Gary replied. Damn. So it was just me, then.

That was Sunday. It’s Wednesday now, and since then, all manner of formerly motionless places have somehow begun rocking hither and thither, sometimes imperceptibly and sometimes in great sloping lurches. The airport, the car we took from the airport, the house in which I grew up, the houses of friends, all of them have been swaying to and fro, and I’m starting to get tired of it.

That’s what I get for spending a week at sea, of course, aboard a floating hotel called the Dawn Princess. It took a day or two for my equilibrium to catch up to the rocking motion of the boat upon the sea, but once it did, walking along the decks became just like walking on dry land. I should have guessed that when I finally did return to dry land, it would take a similar amount of time for me to adjust to a ground that does not move beneath my feet. I didn’t get seasick, but I have felt oddly landsick since my return.

Life aboard a cruise ship is, sadly, not meant for the likes of me. I don’t swim, I don’t drink, I don’t gamble and I don’t buy useless shiny crap, so I’m quite obviously not the target market for all of the big boat’s major activities. Still, I managed to have a great time, mostly due to the sweet presence of 70-plus-degree weather all week. The islands we visited (St. Thomas, St. Kitts, Grenada, Isla Margarita in Venezuela, and Aruba) were all fascinating, especially Aruba with its miles-long natural bridge made of coral. I read five books while sunning myself on the decks as well, so it was all good. A very relaxing seven days.

And the wedding, of course. My mom got married on Monday, our second day at sea, in the ship’s games room. They took the card tables out, brought a lace archway in, and called it a wedding chapel. The surroundings were symbolic of the refreshingly lighthearted nature of the ceremony, presided over by a St. Thomas official from Texas named Sam. He stopped the wedding several times for stand-up comedy routines. One of those involved his assertion that the new family unit formed that day contained “two sons.” My sister and I looked at each other, certain that my mother had failed to tell us something rather important, until Sam looked a bit closer at Emily and ascertained that she is, indeed, female. Funny stuff.

Anyway, man and wife, blah blah blah. It all went swimmingly, and everyone involved seemed to have fun. And here we are, back in the usual groove, with me facing the daunting prospect of locating gainful employment, again, for the third year in a row. I just hope the world stops swaying drunkenly before I have to go on job interviews. Might make that process a bit harder if I’m still walking into walls and stuff.

* * * * *

I hinted last column that I was going to try a massive house-cleaning project this time, hacking my way through the worthy records from last year that I didn’t get to in this space, for one reason or another. I hung on to that plan all the way through Tuesday, when, after taking swing after swing at it, I discovered a couple of things. First, there are way too many records from 2003 that I didn’t review. I was planning on devoting a paragraph or two each to 36 of them, in two installments, this time. That’s too many to cover with any depth.

Second, I realized that the 50-word reviews I was churning out were boring. And third, that 36 of those reviews one after the other would be pretty much unreadable. I was putting myself to sleep, and whenever you do that, as a writer, you’ve got an issue. Adding to my decision to retire that silly idea, I read Nick Hornby’s wonderful Songbook, in which he does what I’ve been trying to do for years and makes it look easy. The book is a series of essays, each concerning one song that Hornby loves. And I realized that if he can devote three whole pages to Ben Folds’ “Smoke,” for example, or Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” then trying to squeeze 36 small reviews into one tiny space is hopelessly reductive.

But I did take a couple of swings at it, like I said, and I did end up with the 36 ignored albums I think you should have heard last year (especially if you’ve liked these bands’ previous work), so in the interest of sating the curiosity that I hope exists, here’s the list, in alphabetical order:

Aphex Twin’s 26 Mixes for Cash, Basement Jaxx’s Kish Kash, Harry Connick Jr.’s Other Hours and Harry for the Holidays, the second Cush spiritual EP, Death Cab for Cutie’s wonderful Transatlanticism, the self-titled Deftones album, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones’ three-disc set Little Worlds, Guster’s winsome Keep It Together, the Innocence Mission’s Befreinded, Jars of Clay’s Furthermore and Who We Are Instead, Living Colour’s messy Collideoscope, Lyle Lovett’s boot-scootin’ My Baby Don’t Tolerate, Dave Matthews’ solo debut Some Devil, the self-titled new Mavericks album, Sarah McLachlan’s subtle Afterglow, John Mellencamp’s American folk-blues album Trouble No More, Ministry’s Animositisomina, and Moby’s 18 B-Sides, complete with exhaustive DVD.

Oh, and Beth Orton’s b-sides collection The Other Side of Daybreak, Our Lady Peace’s live record, Pearl Jam’s rarities collection Lost Dogs (and what does it say about a band like Pearl Jam when their rarities collection is better than most of their albums?), A Perfect Circle’s surprising Thirteenth Step, Primus’ EP Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People, Rage Against the Machine’s live album, Seal IV, Sepultura’s Roorback (but only if it comes packaged with the awesome Revolusongs EP), South’s excellent With the Tides, The Stills’ debut Logic Will Break Your Heart, the Strawmen’s Saving Faded Dreams (featuring past and present members of the 77s), Tourniquet’s Where Moth and Rust Destroy, Type O Negative’s Life is Killing Me, Vertical Horizon’s kinda disappointing Go, Vida Blue’s jammin’ The Illustrated Band, and the Weakerthans’ witty Reconstruction Site.

I do have small capsule reviews of each of the above either written or planned out, so if you’d like to read some of them, let me know which ones you’re interested in and I’ll e-mail them to you. Otherwise, though it pains me to let so many good albums go undiscussed, I’m putting this whole idea to bed. Let’s hope I do better this year so that I’m not forced to make a list like this again…

* * * * *

Ani Difranco might be the most restless artist working today.

There’s very little that needs to be said about her origins, and about where she’s brought her sound and career. She’s the only major artist (depending on your definition, of course) who made her own way – she’s never released an album on any other label than her own Righteous Babe Records, and she’s supported her career in a strictly grass-roots manner, touring endlessly and self-promoting tirelessly. Nearly 15 years after her debut, this self-wrought career path has led her to a place from which she can do anything she wants. If she wanted to fill her next record with Sri Lankan yodeling and ukelele solos, she could, and no one could tell her not to.

All of which would mean nothing if Difranco weren’t a) a terrific singer and songwriter, b) a terrific record-maker, and c) an artistically restless soul. She’s made undeniably great albums, like Out of Range and Little Plastic Castle, and she could probably carve out a whole career full of traditionally excellent records, but that’s not the way she thinks. Difranco is on a journey, and she’s more than willing to make jarring, experimental collections along the way if she thinks they will help her get somewhere else.

Recently Difranco arrived at a plateau with her fantastic double-disc set Revelling/Reckoning and its follow-up, last year’s Evolve. She’d taken her music in a jazz-folk direction, mastering delightfully dissonant horn arrangements along the way, and the arrival point easily justified experimental works like Up Up Up Up Up Up. As one can see by looking through her catalog, though, it’s a pattern she’s repeated – try something new, get it right, move on and evolve.

That’s a pattern that leaves bizarre, disheveled albums in its wake, however, and with this week’s release of Educated Guess, her 18th, we’re in the experimental phase again. Where her previous few records have been loaded with musicians, from her usual touring band to a huge horn section, Educated Guess is all Ani. She’s decided to return to her DIY roots, playing all the instruments and producing the disc herself – all analog, I might add. But if you read that as a sign that the old kinetic folk-punk is back, you’re in for a disappointment.

Difranco hasn’t altered her writing style to match her recording techniques here, so what you have is an acoustic jazz-folk album that sounds just a mite unfinished. There are no percussion instruments of any kind, for one thing, which only adds to the album’s feeling of disconnected meandering, and where there should be horns, Difranco has added high-pitched backing vocals in dissonant progressions. It’s an odd mix, devoid of perceptible beats and melody lines, and full of moaning and seemingly off-key scat singing. As an album, this thing seems to fall apart as you listen to it.

Give it a chance, though, and some of Difranco’s choices may surprise you. She finds a loping rhythm of sorts on “Bliss Like This,” brings in hints of her Reckoning sound on “Animal,” and concludes with a dissonant winner called “Bubble.” Throughout, the oddly slack sound of her detuned guitar, coupled with the falsetto vocal accents that just don’t seem to match up as often as they should, is grating. Yet given a few listens, it sounds right – like old Sonic Youth albums, this one takes some getting used to.

Lyrically, Difranco is in the land of broken relationships again after a brief stopover in political country. This is her most poetry-influenced album since Not a Pretty Girl – four whole tracks are recited, not sung, including a feminist rant called “Grand Canyon” that refers to the movement as “the coolest f-word ever.” The lyrics are typically soul-baring, but this time they seem a little undercooked – an obvious metaphor like “Origami” could have used a few more drafts, for instance. The political statements on Educated Guess shine brighter than the emotional ones, especially this bit from “Animal”: “There’s this brutal imperial power that my passport says I represent, but it will never represent where my heart lies, only vaguely where it went.”

Still, this is a difficult listen, and a hard album to defend musically. It almost sounds like, in her desire to produce something singlehandedly, she’s released her demos. Most of these songs would be improved by the addition of instruments and arrangements, although it’s also fair to say that most of them would be improved by stronger composition. Difranco has done some impressive things tonally on this album, making certain guitar melodies work when they shouldn’t, but that’s no substitute for good, well-written songs, and for the first time in a while, she’s failed to deliver more than a handful of those.

But hey, she’s on a journey, and the most important thing is where she goes from here. The best part about Ani Difranco is that she’s willing to surrender completely to her art, and follow where it leads her. Based on her track record, there’s little doubt that she’ll eventually arrive somewhere special when this particular leg of her trip is done. But ask her what that arrival point might sound like, and I’d bet that even Difranco couldn’t tell you. The best she can do at this point is make an educated… well, you know.

See you in line Tuesday morning.