Aimee Mann first burst on the scene in 1985 as leader
of the Boston band, til’ tuesday. Their unique and ubiquitous
single, “Voices Carry” was a huge hit on Top 40 radio and the video
played endlessly on MTV. Standing out on the midst of fluffy 80s
pop, the song was an unflinching look at domestic violence.
Although til’ Tuesday broke up after three albums,
Mann carried on as a critically acclaimed solo artist. Her solo
debut, Whatever (1993) and the follow up, I’m With Stupid
(1996), met with modest commercial success. Unfortunately she
was plagued with Record label woes.
By the late 90s, Mann married fellow musician Michael Penn
and created a soundtrack for the film “Magnolia.” One song from
the movie, “Save Me ,” received an Academy Award nomination for
Best Song. Despite the fact that she lost to Phil Collins’ drippy
“You’ll Be In My Heart,” (from the Disney film “Tarzan”) the
recognition allowed Mann to terminate her contract with Geffen
Records and start her own label, Superego.
Her newest effort, Charmer, is Mann’s seventh release
through Superego. The album opens with the beguiling title track.
Powered by a swirling mellotron and a martial beat, the lyrics reveal
that even most cynical manipulators face devastating insecurities:
“When You’re a charmer, the world applauds/ They don’t know that
secretly charmers feel like frauds.”
Mann’s forte as a songwriter is her attention to detail.
She consistently combines vivid storytelling with pure pop melodies.
Despite the loping groove, “Soon Enough” burrows deep
into a failed romance. Deflecting the pain, Mann offers up the
rhetorical question, “What’s more fun than other people’s hell?”
“Barfly” weds a slithering guitar and soulful vocals to
a withering indictment of addiction. The slow and mournful
“Slip and Roll” employs a boxing metaphor to detail the inexorable
slide into an emotional abyss.
The best songs on Charmer are “Living A Lie” and
“Gamma Ray.” The former is a duet with Shins and Broken Bells
front man James Mercer. The mellow melody belies this stinging
war of words. Mann and Mercer trade corrosive verses, Mercer
blasts the first sarcastic salvo: “You can see yourself in the side mirror,
tossing your hair/If no one is there, why do you care?” Mann lobs her
own verbal grenade, “No one bears a grudge like a boy genius just past
his prime/Gilding his cage one bar at a time.”
It seems Pat Benatar was right, Love IS a Battlefield!
On the latter, twitchy guitar riffs and other-worldly synths
collide giving the song an 80s patina. The Sci-Fi lyrics serve as an
allegory for an imploding romance.
Other stand out tracks include the piano-driven
“Labrador.” This introspective tune draws a fine line between
loyalty and gullibility.
Hushed harmonies and a breezy melody camouflage
the emotional torment within “Gumby.” Finally, “Crazytown”
is not a tribute to the crap-tastic Rap-Rock band. Instead it’s a
brisk and propulsive rocker, with a plot straight out of Hitchcock
Charmer closes with “Red Flag Diver.” Here Mann
abandons her almost journalistic yarn-spinning for a jaunty bit
of jabber-wocky. It’s a refreshing finish. Like a sorbet after an
expansive seven course meal.
In the tradition of Lennon & McCartney, Elvis Costello
and Difford & Tilbrook from Squeeze, Aimee Mann crafts
songs that are impossibly catchy, literate and immensely satisfying.
Pithy and concise, Charmer is a worthy addition to Aimee Mann’s
considerable body of work.