I’ve been listening to Aimee Mann for 23 years, essentially most of the time I spent as a teenager and all of my adult life. It began with the cassette of Voices Carry, the debut album of Mann’s band, `Til Tuesday. It continued with her solo debut, the criminally overlooked, Whatever. My fandom grew stronger with every album, and I gained even more love for her when she uttered the great line, “I hate playing vampire towns” on Buffy. Awaiting a new Aimee Mann endeavor every three years has been a welcome ritual for me. It seems as if these past few albums, ever since Mann went completely DIY, have been the best of her career. Though I love her early work and the two major label solo albums, Bachelor No. 2, Lost in Space and The Forgotten Arm have proven that this singer / songwriter only gets better with age. The same definitely holds true for her latest effort, the seemingly angrily titled, @#%&! Smilers.
I’ve had friends over the years who have either been as obsessed with Aimee Mann or have claimed that listening to one album qualifies as listening to every album. Though I definitely classify myself in with the first group, I see the point of the second, though only to a degree. Yes, at first glance, most singer / songwriters create music with a level of consistency that can be both relied upon and sometimes dismissed. Ani DiFranco, Sarah McLachlan and Tori Amos all have that same stigma, as no one but the devout can really tell the difference between particular albums. Yet, it only takes one of the devout to vault the singer / songwriter out of that sub-level of relative anonymity into the public spotlight. In Mann’s case, that’s where Paul Thomas Anderson stepped in, creating whole characters and storylines for Magnolia out of Mann’s songs. He was able to see what I and many other Aimee Mann fans also could, a depth of songwriting prowess, agility with words, and a knack for harmony and melody that most other artists would kill for.
And, if you haven’t already made yourself one of the devoted Mann-servants, it’s about time you have with this latest effort. Mann, on this album, is at her most clever, most melodic and most adventurous. On her last album, The Forgotten Arm, she tinkered with the theme album and also introduced herself as a piano player. This time around, Mann ditches theme for individual vignettes and continues the keyboard experimentation, though this time with organs and synths. This is most evident in the opening track and single, “Freeway.” Backing Mann’s distinctive voice and delivery are ’80s style synthesizers and more timeless pianos that combine for an interesting mix. The chorus of “You’ve got a lot of money, but you can’t afford the freeway” is just one example of Mann’s delightful way with wordplay. In a literal bout of wordplay, Mann sings of crossword puzzles and Anne Sexton in “Stranger Into Starman,” which I hope is a reference to an album by Billy Joel and a song by David Bowie, though it could be anything.
For the country-esque track, “Phoenix,” Mann rhymes the title with `Kleenex,’ something I’m sure has never been done, but it works so well, it’s amazing this is likely the first time. Gorgeous strings come in during the bridge to add a bit of melancholia to the song about rejection. The chorus of the song also uses a more literary `abab’ rhyme scheme than most songs, setting it apart in yet another way. The synthesizers come back into play in “Borrowing Time,” adding near-whispered backup vocals and a carnival-like feel, recalling a band that Mann tends to be a huge fan of, Squeeze. The storyline qualities of “It’s Over,” not to mention the cinematic feel, will make most recall the great Mann songs that Paul Thomas Anderson used for Magnolia. In “Thirty-One Today,” Mann relays universal feelings that come with the territory of a third decade of life by singing, “I thought my life would be different somehow, I thought my life would be better by now.” Some may have heard the track “Great Beyond” as part of the soundtrack for Arctic Tale, but if you haven’t, it proves that Mann can write songs on several different levels and succeeds on every one.
If I have one complaint about @#%&! Smilers, it is in the final track, “Ballantines.” On its own, the song is a great New Orleans style, Vaudevillian track with a guest appearance from San Francisco singer / songwriter Sean Hayes (not to be confused with the actor, who actually plays a mean piano). My issue is with the mouth-trumpet performed by Hayes. I don’t quite understand why 2008 seems to be the year of the `trumpet impression,’ but it hasn’t worked with anything I’ve heard yet. Jaymay, She & Him and now Aimee Mann have all employed this gimmick and it’s ridiculous. Please, Aimee, wasn’t there a moment in the studio where you thought to yourself, `Oooh, I’ve gotta edit that out.’ If you did, you should have listened to yourself. Other than that one ill-advised moment, @#%&! Smilers is another solid album for an oft-overlooked talent. As I stated earlier, I’ve been an Aimee Mann fan for 23 years, and now I’m looking forward to the album in year 26.
Squeeze- East Side Story
Neil Finn- Try Whistling This
Elvis Costello- Imperial Bedroom