Sunday, June 15, 2008

Aimee Mann, @#%&*! Smilers

I have always rooted for Aimee Mann. Ever since I heard her 2002 classic Lost in Space, I have searched through her other work in hopes of discovering the glory of that stand-out album elsewhere in her catalogueor at least some traces of it. I am always left with the same unspectacular adult contemporary whatever that only once in a while shows signs of that spark that made Lost in Space so quietly brilliant.

Fast forward to the present, and the latest from Mann has critics all abuzz with weighty words like "masterful" and "deceptively powerful." I'm not so convinced; Smilers is mostly a disappointment, giving new meaning to an old line from Lost in Space that reads, "I'm not the girl you once put your faith in/ Just someone who looks like me."

You get the feeling that Mann's musical style is like her grandmother's old pie recipe that she keeps trying to figure out, with Lost in Space being that one time she got it right. She makes slight adjustments on every attemptwrites pretty arrangements, treads new ground lyrically, breaks out some brass?but the pie is always missing something, and so are most of these tracks.

The subject matter is partly to blame. Smilers suffers from her last album's curse of downer specificity: a song about a middle-aged pretty boy whose looks are fading, something about not being able to afford a freeway.... they are an upgrade from the old school boxer tale she told on concept album The Forgotten Arm, but not by much. Mann has proved her exceptional talent for clever, moving songwriting with past works of art such as "Invisible Ink" and "Guys Like Me." She would benefit from a return to the broader, more relatable themes of her past work.

"31 Today," "Stranger into Starman" and "Medicine Wheel" earn more listens, but you could live without the first two. Mann is at her best on the heartfelt "Medicine Wheel." She bears her pain from the beginning with the gripping opening line, "The day you left and you called me 'bitch'..." to a chorus that stings with frustration: "Everything that's given, you steal." Overall, not a bad effort from Mann; however, with the bar set so high, Smilers is a bust.

- Jessy Bartlett

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