Many prolific artists yearn to flood the market with titles, but the music industry's promotional machinery and conventional wisdom dictates a certain amount of restraint, for reasons ranging from audience burnout to quality control to simple confusion. But, like her friend and occasional collaborator Prince, Ani DiFranco doesn't have much use for the music industry, conventional wisdom, or quality control. The result is a daunting, wildly uneven stack of releases, piling up at a rate of about one a year since 1989–saturation in large part responsible for DiFranco's ability to slip comfortably off magazine covers and back into the loving embrace of popular music's cultish margins. Of course, she's helped speed that process along by willfully taking hairpin artistic turns, often dragging her fans behind her kicking and screaming. DiFranco has never been afraid to follow her vision in unexpected directions, or in many unexpected directions at once, as her strident declarations rub up against airier meditations on romantic and spiritual pursuits, as well as the occasional noodly jam. Last year's Evolve even dared to be boring: Sticking mostly to dithering folk-jazz odysseys, the album perversely limited her political expression to one perfunctory ramble while America was going to war. Still, if DiFranco's work weren't so frustrating and contradictory, she wouldn't be half as interesting, and her new Educated Guess wisely leaves behind the jammier elements of her recent works while bringing her thorny personality back to the fore. Produced and played with no outside help, the album benefits from DiFranco's emphasis on spare shimmer, though it also perpetuates her recent tendency to let her songs languidly drift along, for better and for worse. Subtlety remains a weapon wielded sparingly, as the lovely title track gets offset by one too many choir-preaching poetry readings (particularly the tsk-tsking "Grand Canyon"). But Educated Guess, more than many of DiFranco's recent albums, captures the singer, songwriter, and icon drawing her many strengths and weaknesses into focus all at once. For an artist whose contradictions and blind spots help feed her immortality, that's a welcome sign.
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