I was in the grocery store a few days ago, spending too much money on the wrong things (as usual). As I made my way through the aisles, I heard the song playing on the Muzak system overhead (as usual). I didn’t know if it was good or bad, but the song playing sounded familiar. Eventually, it hit me.
I was hearing an 80’s band called ‘Til Tuesday and their hit song, called “Voices Carry.” I remember seeing them on MTV (back when they actually played music videos) more than a few times. I didn’t hate the song, but I didn’t put a lot of focus on it, either. Primarily because my introduction to progressive rock took place the same year this song was released (1985). But it was played quite a bit on college radio stations, and those I listened to more frequently.
‘Til Tuesday was fronted by a singer/songwriter named Aimee Mann. In 1985, that didn’t mean much to me. In 2000, all that started to change.
One evening that year, I found myself watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Magnolia. The movie was most interesting. But in typical “me” fashion, I found myself listening to the movie’s soundtrack more than anything else.
Early on, I heard a most interesting cover of Harry Nilsson’s legendary hit, “One.” The vocalist sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Turns out it was Aimee Mann. It was hard to believe 13 years had passed since I last heard her voice. (She made a cameo appearance on a Rush tune called “Time Stand Still” in ’87.) No wonder I didn’t recognize it right away.
Later on, I heard another beautiful song. Once again, Mann was the singer. Her voice penetrated my soul. Even as the movie continued, all I could hear was Mann’s song. It was called “Save Me.” That tune, and another called “Wise Up” made seeking out the Magnolia motion picture soundtrack well worth the effort.
I don’t need an excuse to go to a record store, but now I had a great one! I found the Magnolia soundtrack right away. But my friend Kim (who also happened to be the store’s manager), wouldn’t let me stop there. She also sent me home with Mann’s newest solo album, called Bachelor No. 2. I figured if it was anything like the songs I’d already heard, it would be great.
I wasn’t disappointed.
What I heard was one of the finest pop albums I had ever experienced. Mann’s writing was razor sharp, and far too intelligent for the likes of commercial radio and MTV. Not that any of that mattered to me. I had my hands on one of the best CDs of the year, and I couldn’t tell enough friends about it. When she came to my fair town to promote the record, I was there to take it all in. The concert was just as fine as the record. My personal highlight was a tune called “Deathly,” which opens with a line actually spoken by a character in Magnolia when she goes on a first date with a man she clearly cares for, but she is too much of a personal train wreck to be able to handle the idea of a relationship. “Now that I’ve met you / Would you object to / Never seeing each other again?” she asks. “Cause I can’t afford to / Climb aboard you / No ones go that much ego to spend”
Oh, my God. It was unlike just about anything I could ever recall hearing. The only opening line to hit me that hard since was Brian Wilson’s opening on “God Only Knows.”
That I heard the record at all is a bit of a miracle. According to Mann, her label, Geffen, wanted to shelve Bachelor No. 2 because the record was too depressing, and they didn’t hear a single. What kind of lunacy was that? As it turns out, said lunacy is pretty typical in the commercial music world. Gone were the days of making art. The new bottom line was simply how could the album enhance the label’s bottom line. Going into her own pockets, Mann paid six figures to buy back her own record, so she could release it on her own, culminating in the creation of her own label, SuperEgo Records. In the end, she was able to secure her own distribution deal, and sold more than 250,000 copies of Bachelor No. 2. Considering labels did God-knows what to sell 500,000 copies so the record went gold, Mann’s sales figures were positively staggering. As an added bonus, she didn’t have to share the benefits with her former label.
After absorbing this album, I proceeded to do what I do best. Once I find an artist I like, I delve into their back catalog. As it turns out, Bachelor No. 2 was Mann’s third record. In 1993, she released Whatever to critical acclaim, but modest sale. The same thing happened two years later when she released I’m With Stupid. I couldn’t help but admire Mann’s cheek with her album titles. And the songs fit the perceived attitude. She wrote and sang about deeply dysfunctional characters, sometimes in metaphor, but usually straight on. Her arrangements have been consistent throughout her career: a couple of guitars (one of which might be acoustic), bass (frequently played by Mann herself, along with one of the guitar parts), keyboards, and drums. Harmonies were usually provided by one or two male voices and Mann herself. The formula worked. There was no need to mess with it.
Mann soon found herself coming further “above ground” now that the secret of her brilliance was out. She solidified her momentum with an album called Lost in Space, which came out in 2002. That album contains yet another of my favorite tunes, called “The Moth.” To my delight, this song opens a live CD/DVD set she released in ’04, called Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse. The club in question, located in Brooklyn, held an enthusiastic audience that clearly appreciated Mann’s skills.
Along the way, Mann developed an interest in boxing, and took a few lessons herself. This helped lead the way to a concept album called The Forgotten Arm, which was released in ’05. It told the story of a star-crossed pair who met at a state fair and tried to make a life together despite their considerable baggage. Anyone doubting Mann’s skills as a storyteller (and I don’t know why they would) need look no farther than this album for proof positive.
Mann’s cheek came back with a vengeance in ’08 with an album called @#%&*! Smilers, which seems to pretty much explain itself. Her tongue remained planted firmly in cheek when she released Charmer four years later. Critics continued to praise Mann’s abilities as a writer of deep and colorful sonic stories. The following year, she and singer/songwriter Ted Leo combined forces to create The Both, an album that sounded like what I thought a record featuring Mann and her husband, Michael Penn. It should not surprise that this is yet another top-flight record.
Mann is not as personally morose as her songs might lead one to believe. She frequently pokes fun at herself for her dark subject material. She also did a really funny turn on Portlandia, and IFC comedy show. When the main characters decide to hire an outside house cleaner, guess who shows up to do the job? But just in case anyone forgot about that cheeky attitude, it came back in 2017, when she released her latest album, Mental Illness. I remember chuckling to myself, and wondering if the title was just a little too on-the-nose. Not that it mattered. The music is just fantastic.
I have nothing but boundless admiration for Aimee Mann’s musical abilities. Years ago, when I was deep into playing guitar, a friend asked me who I would most like to be in a band with. I remember thinking how cool it would be to get paid to play with King Crimson, Adrian Belew, Mike Keneally, or Prince. But after a lot of thought, I said, “You know, if she would give me songwriting lessons three times a week while we were on the road, I’d play for Aimee Mann for free!” I’m feeling the need to get my chops back so I can extend the offer. Something tells me she would make me take some kind of salary.
While I’m certain artists like Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga have their strengths (to say nothing of the major label backing), I say without hesitation that they aren’t in the same school with Aimee Mann, let alone the same class. As fantasies go, I would love to book Mann as part of an IntelliPop-a-Palooza, along with her husband, Adrian Belew, Mike Keneally, and Rob Fetters. And how great would it be to have all those talents on the same stage, collaborating and creating their own tune? Well … I can dream.
For now, I will continue to enjoy an artist I consider a Personal Icon.
(Top photo by Sheryl Nields)
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