Saturday, October 04, 2008

Kat's Korner: Aimee Mann ain't smiling

Kat: "You gotta a lot of money but you can't afford the freeway." Ain't it the truth, Aimee? Well ain't it?

Aimee Mann, while few were looking, reached over and grabbed the honor of best living songwriter who is too young to have been invited to Woodstock. More and more these days, that just makes her our best songwriter period.

In June, she released @#%&*! Smilers which only confirmed her gifts. The first track ("Freeway") works on the kind of groove many of us hoped the Breeders' Mountain Battles might stumble across but didn't. But what will probably stand out the most is Aimee's ticked.

The cover makes that clear beyond the title as one look at the drawing of the angry red face sticking out a tongue will make clear. The lyrics only elaborate on that anger.

"Get Up" is sung to someone who refuses to live their life but seems intent upon dragging Aimee down ("You stay, she's bringing the poison apple to you") and, in a similar vein, "Cause Nothing Can Wait Forever" finds Aimee counseling "they don't give unlimited chances in life." "The Great Beyond" finds her washing her hands of that person (or people) as she opens with, "Go, honey go -- into the ocean, Go, honey go -- into the great beyond til you're good and gone."

When not offering that and similar sentiments, she's exploring her own faults/blame, confessing that "it's hard to know when to cut and run" ("I've Had My Fill"), "I thought my life would be different somehow, I thought my life would be better by now but it's not" ("I Don't Know Where To Turn") and "I want you ... But baby the price is high."

In one of the most effective tracks on the CD, Aimee sings (and writes):

I turned stranger into starman
In the Sunday New York Times
Like Anne Sexton and her star rats
Working backwards til it rhymes
For the love of God
You can't tell me again

The song is set to a spark arrangement and over in the blink of an eye (one minute and thirty-one seconds). It's the second track on the CD and grabs you in a way that some tracks which follows may not immediately. "Borrowing Time," for example, with it's bouncy beat, is in direct contrast to the lyrics long before the horns are added to the arrangement.

Which brings up a criticism I've heard regarding Aimee Mann for some years: She's too smart.

Generally that means her lyrics are more complex than bubble gum but it's also true that sometimes she's too smart for her own good. An argument can be made on the latter for this album because she's got some heartbreaking tunes and, very often, they are disguised by a production that is in complete contrast to what she's actually singing.

On "Freeway," which is a finger pointer as well, the groove's so strong who can argue with it? But track five ("It's Over") may be one of the few times where the production perfectly fits a full blown song. Paul Bryan is the producer this go round and it's hard to tell whether this is a fault of his or Aimee's own creative direction?

With the band 'Til Tuesday, Mann (and her songwriting) found immediate success and what followed would not be described by the participants as "great fun." After the first album and the mega hit "Voices Carry," the band manage to turn out two follow ups which make up some of the strongest music of the period. On her own, Aimee initially struggled with labels in a way that was much more conflicted than anything that happened in the days of 'Til Tuesday. She set up SuperEgo Records to go the do-it-yourself route and it's what not only saved her career but also gave her one.

If you're among the faithful (I am), you'll love this album. You'll appreciate the grace and skill with which she writes songs. But if you're one of the uninitiated and stumble across this CD, you may listen (and sing along) for months before you grasp how dark the sentiments expressed truly are.

The day you left and you called me bitch
I called you selfish, better pull that switch
Put my son on amphetamines
He came home crying and there's your proof
Crying but nothing but a missing tooth
You shade the truth almost every day
Phone calls at night, it's gonna be okay

"I Did The Right Thing" is the excerpt above and it's another effort where the production matches the point of the song. It's also the one that had me wondering, "Is Mann's marriage breaking up?" No, it turns out these are character sketches.

And possibly the various characters are captured in the production?

Maybe so but the thing that gets me came from calling up a friend who interviewed her this summer and he told me one of Aimee's big sub-themes of the interview was how this album's sales were half of what they should have been and that, his opinion, this disappointed her.

Which makes me wonder if she's attempting to challenge the audience or internalizing her days at Epic? The big battle then (during 'Til Tuesday) was over the sound. Epic was perfectly fine with Mann's lyrics and singing and, even, the band's sound but could they possibly make the songs sound 'prettier' and 'less dark'? They refused on Welcome Home but fell into the trap on Everything's Different Now.

@#%&*! Smilers is a lyrically dark album so the sheen and uptempo production on many songs is confusing. It may be an artistic statement and may capture the mood of the characters she's sketching. It could be Aimee attempting to challenge her audiences. It could be Aimee working off the eighties advice from Epic. But if you're complaining about the sales of your latest album -- at length -- and it contains multiple tracks where the production is hugely at odds with the point of the song, you need to stop scratching your head over the sales.

Aimee's also been on the road talking about her column in the New York Times last year where she dissed Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club and how she burnt out on it and now thinks there are many other better Beatles album. She's taken to a defensive posture that the friend I noted above and another friend interviewing her for her tour found confusing. Possibly the answer is something that her solo albums have long suggested: Brian Wilson is her own super ego? "God Only Knows" is an amazing song and it's the most misproduced single the Beach Boys ever had -- spit-polished until the last emotion is gone and a lament is turned into a laundry list.

I happen to love @#%&*! Smilers and strongly recommend it but if you're going to complain about your sales, you might want to try avoiding releasing an album that feeds into the "too smart for her own good" image. That's my suggestion for Aimee. My suggestion for you is buy the CD, it's one of the year's best.

aimee mann
the beach boys
til tuesday
kats korner
the common ills