Monday, June 16, 2008

Aimee Mann CD review

(This review originally appeared in IE Weekly)

Aimee Mann
@#%&*! Smilers
(Super Ego)

The title of Aimee Mann’s latest speaks volumes. It refers to annoying people who always urge you to smile (insert preferred curse word). Not exactly Mrs. Happy Go Lucky, Mann often crafts cynical, confessional tunes about broken romances and drug dependency. Her visibility factor rose immensely after an Oscar nod for “Save Me” (from the flick “Magnolia”) in 1999. That didn’t translate into mainstream success, so Mann started an independent label, became a regular at L.A. singer/songwriter haven Largo and continued making beautiful, yet caustic tunes dealing with depression and alienation. 2005’s The Forgotten Arm was a pop/rock concept album revolving around an alcoholic Vietnam vet and his white trash girlfriend.

Smilers is like a collection of short stories and lighter in tone. Electric guitars are absent; layered keyboards, analog synths, clavinets, distorted Wurlitzers, prominent horns and a string section provide a far more inviting sonic palate than before. Opening track “Freeway” concerns a well off speed freak who moves to L.A. to get clean (oh, the irony) then heads to the O.C. to get a fix. Boasting a vaguely New Wave sound and hooky chorus, it’s one of the catchiest things Mann has done in years.

On “31 Today,” the artist recalls how she thought her life would be different at that point and sees peers “getting loaded and watching CNN.” Dig the dreamy Fountains of Wayne keys. “Ballantines,” a jovial ode to an old Kentucky bar (the male duet partner is a dead ringer for Antony of the Johnsons) recalls past work with Jon Brion. Falling in love with a poltergeist is the impetus for the whimsical “True Believer,” co-written by Grant-Lee Phillips. Another enthralling adult alternative collection. Bonus points for the cool artwork patterned after a book with retro illustrations for each song lyric.

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