For her thirteenth studio album, Ani DiFranco purges all the excesses of her last seven years. Gone are the increasingly watery forays into funk, jazz and pop; in their place is the tough wit and Leo Kottke-ish guitar work that are her two strongest weapons. While she seems to be striving for the visceral folk of her first two albums, Educated Guess feels a little unfocused, as though DiFranco's independence is working to undermine itself. Since she performs, records and produces everything here, there's no other voice to tell her that maybe, just maybe, three spoken-word pieces are too many or that tracks like "Swim" could use a hook or two -- or even that the backing vocals sound like chipmunks.
On the other hand, DiFranco's increasingly elaborate studio sound was yielding diminishing returns, and even when the songwriting on Guess meanders, it's still a reminder of how potent the simplicity of her early days is. Ignore the lack of anything as catchy as "Both Hands" or "In or Out" and get lost in her lyrical cascades and popping guitar rhythms. Guess works best as an album-length sonic collage, but for those of you looking for standouts, the sweet, shimmering title track and uncharacteristically catchy chorus of "Bubble" are as good as you'll get. Another Guess would probably be way too earnest and granola-ish by half, but for now DiFranco's return to her roots has made for her best album since Dilate.