Before this Aimee Mann was the leader of ‘Til Tuesday, who deserved better than their one-hit wonder status (remember "Voices Carry"?). After all, the band steadily improved (as sales decreased) with each succeeding album, culminating with their highly underrated third album, Everything’s Different Now. Five years and many record company problems later, Aimee came back with this strong first solo album, which once again should’ve (but didn’t) make her a star (seemingly acknowledging her fate, "Put Me On Top" contains the following lyric: "I should be riding on a float in the hit parade, instead of standing on the curb behind the barricade"). Though hardly a powerhouse singer, Mann's conversational voice effectively conveys her bitterly emotional lyrics, which deal primarily with past boyfriends and record executives, presumably. Musically, Mann is capable of writing beautifully arranged songs, but she’s a singer-songwriter who can also rock, with a heavenly guitar jangle and a big bop boosting the beautifully airy pop choruses of Byrds-y rockers such as “I Should’ve Known” and “It Could’ve Been Anyone.” On these songs and several others (“Stupid Thing,” for example) Mann lyrically lets the venom fly, but she also occasionally veers off in other directions, wistfully looking back “Fifty Years After The Fair” and falling in love with a much older man in “Mr. Harris” (sample lyric: “you’ve waited long enough, and I’ve waited long enough for you”). Creatively produced by Jon Brion, who influenced this album's adventurous and varied instrumentation (for example, "Jacob Marley's Chain" references Charles Dickens over a waltz-like melody and a marching band beat), Whatever ("the catchphrase of the '90s," according to Mann) can sometimes be bland ("I Know There's A Word" could pass for Anne Murray!) and one-dimensional, but it's also filled with smartly polished pop songs, several of which could've been hits with a bit of luck.
I’m With Stupid (Geffen ’95) Rating: A-
After Imago went under, the perpetually unlucky Aimee Mann released I'm With Stupid on Geffen, another critically acclaimed collection that went nowhere fast commercially. Perhaps the album doesn't have as many potential pop hits as Whatever (which spawned no hits anyway), but I think it's a slightly better album overall, as it maintains its momentum throughout while largely avoiding the moments of boredom that marred Whatever (which was still very good, mind you). I’m With Stupid also rocks harder as a rule, and the album is more distinctly a '90s creation (trip hop beats, grungy guitars) than its retro-minded predecessor. Highlights include the grungy power chords and catchy chorus of "Choice In The Matter," the glam rockin' guitar pop of "Superball," the simple but extremely effective "All Over Now," the powerfully restrained and dramatic "Par For The Course," and the upbeat, danceable "That's Just What You Are," which actually became a minor hit when it was later included on the popular Melrose Place soundtrack. But there's not really a bum track in sight, as I easily could've named several other songs among the highlights. In short, this is another expertly crafted album, and though perhaps a couple of tracks could've been cut and Mann’s bitter lyrics remain depressingly one-dimensional, the brutal honesty of lines like “I was one of few, who stood up for you, and so you never knew, you were a punchline” can still pack quite a punch. Note: The guest musicians who helped out here include Juliana Hatfield, Squeeze’s Glen Tilbrook and Chris Difford, future husband Michael Penn, and guitarist Bernard Butler, while Jon Brion again produced and played a multitude of instruments.
Bachelor No. 2 (SuperEgo Records ’00) Rating: B+
After further record company problems put this album on ice, Aimee Mann got a rare career boost by writing the Magnolia soundtrack (unusually, the movie was based on the songs rather than the other way around). Some of those songs ("Driving Sideways," "Deathly," "You Do") also appear on Bachelor No. 2, which was released on her own Superego Records label (as such, Mann has become a DIY hero to many other anti-major label musicians). Still, I wonder if all of her troubles took its toll on her music, for she sounds less energetic and more straightforward than before. There are also fewer songs that stand out, and I miss the diversity (and the loud guitars) of I'm With Stupid. There are guitars, but they're more in the background, and the overly synthesized, strings-heavy music has too much of a laid-back L.A. feel. Still, a few too many bland ballads aside, this is another very good album, and Mann has been underrated for so long that it only seems fair that this acclaimed album should be a little overrated. Highlights include "How Am I Different," "Calling It Quits," "Driving Sideways," and "You Do," while the lyrics to songs such as "Nothing Is Good Enough" and "It Takes All Kinds" (accusation: "you've become what you hated") see Mann as feisty as ever.
Lost In Space (SuperEgo Records '02) Rating: B
Aimee Mann can rightfully claim to be one of the most consistent (and underrated) female artists of the past decade. Unfortunately, the demands of running her own record label again seems to have sapped her energy and desire to rock out. Albums such as Whatever and I’m With Stupid had their fair share of ballads, but they also contained buoyant pop songs and a fair share of loud (or at least jangly) electric guitars. Lost In Space is made up almost exclusively of atmospheric ballads, all of which are well performed but none of which really leave a lasting impression. In addition, this is her first album without Jon Brion’s input, and his inventive production touches and arrangements are missed, as Mann elects to try an album of similarly subdued songs about relationship stasis and the perils of addiction. There are some exceptions from the album’s one-dimensional mood, as “Pavlov’s Bell” is a rare loud indulgence, while “Invisible Ink” and “It’s Not” feature lush orchestrations. Additionally, aside from the occasional ill-attempted metaphor (“The Moth”), lines like “nobody needs a catalogue with details of a love I can’t sell anymore” again reveal a deft lyrical touch that’s still pessimistic but which is no longer as bitter as in the past. Actually, with repeat listens the never-less-than-pleasant music comes into clearer focus, and the album also gains points for its classy packaging and typically tasteful musical accompaniment. However, there’s little here that Mann hasn’t done better before, and as such I’d recommend getting Lost In Space only after searching out some of her previous work.
The Forgotten Arm (Superego Records '05) Rating: B+
The energy is back, as are the loud guitars and the snappy, memorable melodies, which was a nice surprise as I had started to lose interest in Mann (only buying this album after a friend proclaimed it the "album of the year"). Perhaps it was new producer Joe Henry (Solomon Burke, Bettye Lavette), who cut her professional band live to tape, or perhaps it's simply that she can better focus on songwriting now that she seems to have her business affairs firmly in order, but Mann's batteries seem to be recharged, though the ballads can still sometimes lapse into bland adult contemporary territory. The pop songs and rockers (replete with wailing guitar solos!) are consistently strong, however, and as per usual her lyrics are incisive and quotable. Mann writes about familiar themes, relationship dysfunction, heartbreak, and addiction, mostly, but this time she shakes up what had become a stale, predictable formula by putting her storyteller hat on and making this a concept album about a pair of (surprise surprise) mismatched lovers. John is an ex-Vietnam Vet boxer with a drug problem, Caroline is the girl he meets at a state fair who tries to straighten him out, and needless to say they hit a few bumps along the way. Song titles such as "That's How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart" and "I Can't Help You Anymore" tell you all you need to know, really, and his empty promise ("Clean Up For Christmas") is all the more heartbreaking when Mann delivers lines like "baby you're beautiful, sometimes it hurts me to feel so much tenderness, beautiful, wish you could see it too." In truth, though it offers its fair share of cinematic pleasures, the story feels somewhat contrived and the details can get a bit blurry, and it's the fine music that gives this album its solid footing, as songs such as "Goodbye Caroline," "I Can't Get My Head Around It," "She Really Wants You," "I Can't Help You Anymore," and "Clean Up For Christmas" would all seem to have considerable commercial appeal if Mann had any luck at all (by now it's been well established that she doesn't). Ask me tomorrow and I would probably name some other songs ("Dear John," "Going Through The Motions"?) as well, but without stressing over individual song details by now you get the point that the album's strength is in its not-too-high, not-too-low consistency. Perhaps some of you will continue to miss John Brion's more elaborate arrangements and multi-instrumental ingenuity, but as with Fiona Apple here Mann proves that Brion was an asset rather than a necessity, as on The Forgotten Arm (which metaphorically stands for the punch you didn't see coming in a relationship) reestablishes her credentials as a first-rate singer-songwriter who can also rock out.
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