Back up in the woods

Ani DiFranco keeps on doing it her way.

Katrina Wilber

Enough of the oodles of albums that teenyboppers-turned-sex-symbols churn out with tired old lyrics and the same incessantly happy beats. Bring on the punk rockers and the folk singers. Bring on Ani DiFranco.

“Educated Guess” is the newest addition to DiFranco’s already impressive discography. She started her own record label, Righteous Babe Records, at 19 with all the money from her savings account and whatever she could get from friends. Since then, she’s released all of her own albums as well as records by artists as diverse as feminist folk-punk duo Bitch and Animal, blues-funk poet Sekou Sundiata and crusty hobo-folkie Utah Phillips.

The album is DiFranco, her guitar, a few backup vocals and nothing else. It’s not enough that she wrote all the music and lyrics; she also produced and engineered it entirely herself. Just about the only thing DiFranco had someone else do was the mastering.

This kind of self-motivation doesn’t come as a surprise to DiFranco followers; she’s put out a record almost every year, and even though she had a broken foot last year, she refused to stop touring.

In “Origami,” DiFranco croons, “I know men are delicate origami creatures / who need women to unfold them / and hold them when they cry / but I am tired of being your savior / and I am tired of telling you why.” Her trademark voice curls and twists around her words, and the strumming of the lone guitar is alternately soothing and agitating. She sings to her unknown antagonist in such a uniquely and deeply expressive way that the rest of us could only dream of and wish to have ourselves. The lilt in her voice sharpens the sting of her words.

According to her Web site, DiFranco worked on the album in a New Orleans shack and in Buffalo, N.Y., on reel-to-reel equipment and didn’t edit out any discrepancies that crept into the recording sessions. There aren’t that many, but it takes a strong performer to allow an audience to hear the screw-ups that are usually left on the editing room floor.

It would be unfair to call them “mistakes,” perhaps “glitches” is a better term. She starts one song but abruptly stops, and only her garbled words and unabashed laugh show that the break really wasn’t supposed to happen. She takes a second to recover and then starts over. It’s hardly a distraction; it’s more like a chance to remember that behind the guitar is an artist who, like everybody else, slips up every now and then.

“The True Story of What Was,” one of DiFranco’s spoken songs, is like telling a story over a telephone in the midst of a choral rehearsal. A mechanic-like background voice is joined by harmonies and semi-screeches; the sporadic music in the background eventually fades out and leaves nothing but the pure tones of her voice. The silences between her words beg for something, anything to fill them, and DiFranco obliges with more of her flowing poetry.

The voluntary technological restraints create a level of intimacy that’s hard to find in today’s world of overproduced, “more is better” recordings crammed with enough instruments and backup vocals to give a symphony conductor a headache. If there were rounds of applause between the songs, it would seem as if she were playing in a local auditorium or at an open mic night at a coffeehouse instead of some rude hut.

“Grand Canyon” is another spoken song. Her words slightly echo, leaving an even stronger impression on the listener’s mind, or they sound like they’re being broadcast over a high school public-address system. Her voice ranges from a slight whisper to a gleeful shout as she says, “I love my country / by which I mean / that I am indebted joyfully / to all the people throughout its history / who fought the government to make right Ö so that we could stand here / and behold breathlessly the sight / how a raging river of tears / is cutting a grand canyon of light.”

DiFranco, after years of experience, knows both when to let her guitar take precedence and when her words deserve all the attention. The back-and-forth switches make every song on the album a surprise, because the listener is never quite sure what kind of song is next.

There’s no guesswork involved here; “Educated Guess” is a perfect mix of folk and punk music combined with spoken word, and there’s nobody better than Ani DiFranco to deliver it.