Several years after the breakup of ‘Til Tuesday, the Boston new wave band that scored big with “Voices Carry” in 1985, vocalist Aimee Mann launched her unhurried solo career with the mightily impressive Whatever. Receiving assistance from producer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion (of the Grays), as well as Roger McGuinn and drummer Jim Keltner, Mann moves easily between tough (musically and lyrically) rockers like the angry “I Should’ve Known,” the sprightly pop-rock of “Could’ve Been Anyone” and the tender balladry of “Mr. Harris,” which expertly details a May/December romance. Many of the songs allegedly concern Mann’s bitter breakup with singer/songwriter Jules Shear (who shares writing credit on one tune here with Mann and Marty Willson-Piper of the Church). Regardless, she was certainly able to channel her emotions into a piece of work that’s both highly personal and easy on the ears.
After protracted record company miseries that saw a completed second album change labels prior to its release, I’m With Stupid finally appeared in America in early 1996. Again recorded with substantial help from Jon Brion, I’m With Stupid is a stripped-down and more aggressive record than its predecessor, with growling guitars as the backdrop for Mann’s alternately sweet/accusatory, slightly jazzy vocals. Squeeze’s Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook lend their distinctive voices to “Frankenstein” and “That’s Just What You Are”; Juliana Hatfield harmonizes on two tunes; Michael Penn (whom Mann married at the end of 1997) lets rip with a few white-hot guitar solos; former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler adds his six-string stylings to “Sugarcoated,” which he co-wrote. Inspired somewhat by less-mainstream artists like Beck and Liz Phair (Mann tosses off the f-word more than once here), I’m With Stupid deftly straddles the line between minimalism and grandeur while maintaining the keen lyrical sense that distinguished Whatever.
More protracted label squabbling turned Mann into the national poster girl for industry-tortured artistry (at least until Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). But Mann’s Southern California ties to the film industry and the booming alt-pop scene surrounding Jon Brion’s Club Largo brought a career boost when Paul Thomas Anderson made her a big part of his film Magnolia. Not only did Mann provide the bulk of the score and the soundtrack, Anderson wrote sections of plot and dialogue based on Mann’s lyrics. In effect, she was a contributing writer on the film. “Wise Up,” “Save Me” and “You Do” are among the most sophisticated, artfully crafted songs of Mann’s career, very much of a piece with the vintage pop constructions and oddball flourishes of Brion’s best production work. The album also features the jazzy “Momentum” and digs up Mann’s old cover of “One” from a Harry Nilsson tribute record (plus a few Supertramp songs and Gabrielle’s R&B hit “Dreams”). The album brought Mann an Oscar nomination (she lost to Phil Collins) and the commercial momentum she needed to launch Superego, the label on which she continued her recording career.
Bachelor No. 2 shares four songs with the Magnolia soundtrack, but features a few spectacular new numbers as well: the Elvis Costello collaboration “Fall of the World’s Own Optimist,” “Red Vines” and “Ghost World,” a tribute to the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes. (The song does not appear on the soundtrack of the film made from it, however.) Mann is unusually accomplished at finding the voice of her characters — it would be rash to assume that she only writes autobiographically anymore — and the verses to “Red Vines” are among her most dazzling: “So you’re running ’round the parking lot / ‘Til every lightning bug is caught / Punching some pinholes in the lid of a jar / While we wait in the car.” The only complaint to be lodged against Bachelor No. 2, other than its partially duplicated track listing, is the mid-tempo groove from which Mann rarely extricates herself.
Lost in Space continues that troubling pattern. “Humpty Dumpty,” “Pavlov’s Bell” and especially “The Moth” are finely wrought if prickly pop meditations on loneliness and drugs, but the songs are not as strong overall as on her previous albums, and the tempo neither flags nor picks up over the course of the album. Like its predecessor, this lavish album was largely home-made. It’s noteworthy that Mann’s independent route has yielded a higher rate of productivity and consistently good-to-great songs, but less sonic variety than her first two solo albums demonstrated.
Mann shared highlights from her solo career in the CD/DVD Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse, and released The Forgotten Arm, a loosely novelistic concept album about a boxer and a cross-country romance, produced by Joe Henry, in spring 2005. As is now typical for Mann, the dominant themes of the album are addiction and the relations between men and women — including the pain that people inflict on those whom they love. From the opening “Dear John,” Mann puts herself in the characters of John and Caroline as they meet and fall in love, then struggle to conquer their own demons while preventing what seems like an inevitable breakup. Some of the songs are immediately engrossing: “Dear John,” “Going Through the Motions” and “Video.” Others mostly carry the story forward while allowing Mann to indulge her career-long taste for vintage keyboard orchestration, coolly elegant pop arrangements and displays of tart wordplay.
Of all the artists one would least expect to release a Christmas album, Aimee Mann is near the top of the list. Her lyrical themes are scarcely heartwarming, and her fine — if brittle — voice doesn’t exactly convey the Bing Crosby vibe suited to convivial get-togethers. But the albums Mann released in the wake of Magnolia attracted an upscale, educated audience that likes classy pop music as much as its parents — only hold the fogey schmaltz. So Mann recorded One More Drifter in the Snow, a collection whose tendentious relationship with holiday cheer can be noted in the very title. The album features both Yuletide standards (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland” and the like) plus new compositions, including husband Michael Penn’s “Christmastime” and her own pieces. A version of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” which Mann recorded years earlier, is also in the lineup. As the record was promoted by Starbucks, one can assume the skim-milk latte crowd is now a target demographic.
Released over Mann’s strenuous objections to capitalize on the success of Magnolia, Ultimate Collection is a hop-scotch overview of her career in ‘Til Tuesday and solo. To its credit, the collection boasts a number of her B-sides, including a cover of Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” and the excellent “Driving With One Hand on the Wheel.”