Review: Aimee Mann’s “@#%&*! Smilers”

Jun 6, 2008 4:53pm

  Aimee Mann definitely has a formula.  Ever since her emancipation from the major label system in the late nineties and her Oscar nominated song work in “Magnolia,” every one of her albums has sounded roughly the same.  Tracks are interchangeable here and there, and everything seems like a piece to a giant, conjoining puzzle.  This isn’t a bad thing at all.  It’s her style.  She specializes in deadpan, mid-tempo laments as if reporting as the spokesperson for all the bummed-out urban sophisticates. Her most enjoyable record is still her last album for Geffen, “I’m With Stupid,” but that’s because it had the right amount of alt-rock punch to match her dry, witty delivery.  Her work since deceptively seems almost boring at first.  Each album usually takes about eight or nine listens to sink in, and once it does, its brilliance is clear.  There’s no doubt why Mann is such a respected songwriter.  “@ # % & *! Smilers” sticks with the formula, but it pops more immediately than most of her recent albums because of some great use of new elements.  This is some of Mann’s most synth-heavy work since her days as the lead singer of ‘Til Tuesday.  Not only that, she uses a horn section well, too.  “Freeway” opens the disc and it’s her peppiest single in a while. “You’ve got a lot of money but you can’t afford the freeway” she sings backed by a bouncy bass and some Moog-y keyboards.  Razor-sharp guitars enter for good measure, and you realize that she still has a little bit of that same energy that she had when she recorded “Long Shot.”  “Stranger Into Starman” is a minute and a half of “Pet Sounds”-style piano-chording backed by a string section.  It is brief but memorable. “Looking For Nothing” is a good potential single fitting Mann’s formula.  It is comparable to “Humpty Dumpty” from her 2002 album “Lost In Space.”  This may seem like a slow, plodding formula, but at least we can give her credit for being consistent.  It’s a formula that works well for her, too, so she’s consistently good as well.  “Phoenix” continues in the same vein.  It could have easily been in “Magnolia” or on her album “Bachelor No. 2.”  Once again, the string section stretches out the song to a more epic level. Her repetition of the line “love me like a dollar bill” said in her understated way illustrates why she’s respected.  No one can deliver artful cynicism quite like Aimee Mann, and she’s able to do it with just the right peppering of sarcasm.  Many other artists could try but few would be able to match this.  It’s a quality she has in common with her one-time collaborator, Elvis Costello.  “Borrowing Time” takes us back into the new-wave realm with some spacey keyboards, augmented by some stellar Hammond organ work and a horn section.  She can be totally forgiven for borrowing the riff from Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.”  It’s a riff that’s been borrowed many times before by lesser artists, and what she does with it is brilliant.  This is definitely single worthy.  Mann hasn’t sounded this fresh in years! “It’s Over” is another carefully crafted piano and string number.  Her tunes may not always be hum-worthy in the catchiest of pop senses but that doesn’t make them any less brilliant.  It’s almost like she is working in a classical mold within a pop setting.  She’s never been a pop artist in the truest sense.  Even when “Voices Carry” made her a brief MTV star, she was always a songwriter at heart who just happened to have a hit on her hands.  There’s brightness in the backdrop of “Thirty-One Today.”  The drums have a spring to them and the whirly keyboard intro gives the track zip.  The song’s about looking back on one’s thirty-first birthday. “I thought my life would be different somehow,” she says.  Somehow, even though the song’s lyrical tilt is characteristically dark and down-trodden, there’s optimism as she declares “It’s not that I don’t know where to turn.”  In other words, the song is a character study on someone unhappy with life and about to make a change.  Think about her Oscar nominated song “Save Me.”  Mann can draw these wounded characters with incredible accuracy.  She’s writing songs with the density of short stories.  At its start, “The Great Beyond” sounds like something you’d find on a Fiona Apple record.  After the piano intro, it opens itself up with a brooding-sounding almost Latin rhythm.  This song could’ve been delivered in a very straightforward sort of way, but there’s imagination in this arrangement, and it makes the whole thing stand out, from the melodic bass-line, to the spooky keyboards, to the ghostly backing vocals.  When the tempo shifts and the opening signature returns, the whole thing falls neatly into place. “Medicine Wheel” is a clear, piano number with lyrical mentions of an unhappy couple.  The horns which come in part-way through lift the song out of Mann’s typical formula.   They turn a good track into something single-worthy.  “Columbus Ave.” is also strong.  Mann is at her delicate, cinematic best here, once again boosted by a stellar string section.  There’s something gentle and jazzy about the interplay between the soft drums, the acoustic guitar, the softly puttering bass and the loose piano playing.  “Little Tornado” is haunting and beautiful, once again driven by carefully placed bits of piano and an ominous, subtle, on and off string crescendo.  It’s like a little bit of fury packed into a quiet track.  The whistling (by of all people, Dave Eggers) is a nice touch. “True Believer” recalls “Magnolia” again, and it’s as strong as anything she recorded for that movie. The track was co-written by Grant Lee Phillips.  Finally the album closes with the brief New Orleans-esque, “Ballantines.” The song is a pleasant duet between Mann and singer Sean Hayes.  “@ # % & *! Smilers” stands as one of Mann’s strongest albums to date.  It’s a really enjoyable listen if you allow it grab you.  It shows all of Mann’s hallmarks, while at the same time bringing in new elements to keep things sounding fresh.  Perhaps a lot of the credit should go to bassist/producer/arranger Paul Bryan.  This is a great sounding record, and yes it may very well ultimately make you smile in a down-trodden, cynical, urban-sophisticate kind of way!   

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