Aimee Mann, “Bachelor No. 2, or The Last Remains of the Dodo”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #64 – released March 7, 2000)

Track listing: How Am I Different / Nothing Is Good Enough / Red Vines / The Fall of the World’s Own Optimist / Satellite / Deathly / Ghost World / Calling it Quits / Driving Sideways / Just Like Anyone / Susan / It Takes All Kinds / You Do

How many artists or bands (beyond The Beatles) can you name whose first three albums are all great? One could reasonably make a case for anyone from Talking Heads to Tori Amos (not counting Y Kant Tori Read, of course), but in this canon of 100 favorite albums, only Aimee Mann makes the grade. And yes, she did record three earlier albums as leader of the band ‘Til Tuesday, but the break between them and her solo debut, Whatever is definite—you would never confuse the latter as the product of the former. That 1993 album wholly re-established Mann’s career, knocking everyone who heard it sideways with its mature sound and scope; its follow-up, I’m With Stupid (1996) further expanded and fine-tuned her persona as a literate, occasionally acerbic singer/songwriter rightfully staking her claim as the alt-rock queen of the kiss-off, not to mention an endearing underdog when it came to navigating her way through major record label politics.

Speaking of which, after Interscope rejected her third album in 1999 for not having sufficient “commercial appeal”, Mann bought back the rights and released it herself the following year on her own label, SuperEgo. In hindsight, Bachelor No. 2 (or, The Last Remains of the Dodo) feels no less commercial than either of the two preceding albums, but the very late ’90s wasn’t a stellar time to be a female artist unless your first name was Britney or Christina. Just a few years before, alt-rock-friendly women from Sheryl Crow to Paula Cole regularly crossed over to the pop charts, but closer to decade’s end, they couldn’t even get widespread radio airplay on alt-rock radio, which had devolved into a more male-dominated format heavy with rap-rock and nu metal. Then pushing 40, Mann was less likely than ever to get a radio or MTV hit even as fleeting as “That’s Just What You Are”.

Bachelor No. 2’s opening salvo addresses this conundrum straight away. As “How Am I Different” proceeds at a slow, deliberate swagger, Mann repeats the song’s titular question at its chorus, stretching out the word “How” to nine+ syllables, the guitars swelling like a steady pressure cooker almost ready to blow—and it does, at the subsequent bridge when she sings, with controlled but deeply felt vitriol, “Just one question before I pack / When you fuck it up later, do I get my money back?” As many a Mann song before it, one could interpret it as relating to either a personal or professional relationship; however, her recent history and the mere mention of a monetary transaction firmly nudges the song into the latter category. Although it reprises sentiments voiced on earlier tunes such as “Long Shot”, “I Should’ve Known” and “Sugarcoated”, it feels as if something really vital here’s at stake, perhaps because after all this time, it keeps on happening.

Such subject matter resurfaces throughout Bachelor No. 2—she’s simultaneously sharpening her attack and refining her late-Beatles derived sound. “Red Vines” picks up right where “That’s Just What You Are” left off, laying a shuffling drum loop under a warm bed of guitars (including slide played by her husband, Michael “No Myth” Penn) and a gorgeous melody; it also has some of her most enigmatic lyrics to date, alluding to catching lightning bugs, “punching some pinholes / in the lid of a jar / while we wait in the car,” all the while “sitting on the sidelines / with my hands tied / watching the show.” Similar accusations of being held back or deemed inferior return in the catchy “Ghost World”. Inspired by, but never directly referencing Daniel Clowes’ comic except for its shared title (about a year before Terry Zwigoff’s film adaptation), it’s self-deprecating (“I’m bailing this town / or tearing it down / or probably more like hanging around,”) yet also proudly defiant, concluding with her asking, “So tell me what I want, anyhow.”

Jon Brion, who produced Mann’s last two albums, only helms two tracks here. “The Fall of the World’s Own Optimist” heavily bears his stamp with layers of guitars, antique keyboards and Lennon-esque backing vocals (Mann also co-wrote it with Elvis Costello, whom one can easily imagine mastering its chewy lyrics and melody); the other, “Deathly”,  is a big, bold-strokes, nearly anthem-like ballad that harkens back to other Brion productions (most notably “Stupid Thing” via its guitar solo and “Amateur”, which also had backing vocals from Juliana Hatfield). It’s also one of four songs that, months prior to this album’s release, appeared on the soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia—a film almost entirely made up of Mann’s songs and very much inspired by them as well. One character onscreen even quotes the first line of “Deathly” verbatim: “Now that I’ve met you / would you object to / never seeing each other again?”

Another Magnolia cut is one of Bachelor No. 2’s highlights: “Driving Sideways” follows a four-chord progression that’s comfortably familiar but not derivative. Mann’s vocal carries nearly the entire piano-heavy song, never pausing for a significant instrumental break until the brief, guitar solo-besotted coda. Although the lyrics are as barbed as ever (“At least you know / you were taken by a pro”), Brendan O’Brien’s clear-eyed production casts a warm glow over it that suits Mann’s somewhat retro, power-pop aesthetic while also feeling not entirely like anything else she’s previously done, emitting a ’70s (rather than a late ’60s) Los Angeles rock vibe.

On the two remaining Magnolia holdovers, Mann dips into other uncharted territories. Uncommonly gentle and quiet, “You Do” musically nearly resembles ’70s MOR a la The Carpenters (!), complete with creamy guitars and such outdated instrumental touches as a chiming celeste and, as the liner notes describe it, “cheesy keyboards”; fortunately, her knowingly delicate vocal and cut-to-the-bone lyrics (“and I’m the one who tells you / he’s another jerk,”) are just a tad acerbic to be mistaken for Karen and Richard. “Nothing is Good Enough” (which appeared on Magnolia as an instrumental), on the other hand, is much closer to Bacharach/David, especially in its tap-tap-tapping piano lines and agile melodic cadences; it also fully retains Mann’s proficiency for let’s-get-to-the-point dressing-down, as witnessed in lyrics such as, “No, there’s no one else, I find / to undermine or dash a hope / quite like you.”

The wistful, laid-back “It Takes All Kinds” travels further down this path, even making an explicit reference to its primary inspiration with the couplet, “I would like to keep this vision of you intact / When we sat around and listened to Bacharach,” not to mention the very Dionne Warwick-esque “do-do-do-do-do-wee-ooo” that immediately follows. Fortunately, it’s a lovingly crafted pastiche; “Satellite” is an even better one. From an exquisite piano intro to graceful melodic vocal swoops on the chorus, it has an intricate arrangement where each part individually shines (timpani, bell-like keyboards, shimmering cymbals) but together makes a splendidly orchestrated whole. It exudes class and, more crucially, awe and wonderment, especially at the silent pause after she finishes each chorus of, “Baby, it’s clear, from here / you’re losing your atmosphere / from here, you’re losing it.”

As her third great album in a row, it’s tempting to view Bachelor No. 2 as the final part of a trilogy, but it feels more transitional than anything. Brion’s limited role here is telling, along with the way it vacillates from track to track between Beatles and Bacharach-derived ends of the ’60s musical spectrum. Throughout, it takes other detours as well, such as “Calling It Quits”, a gauzy, spacious attempt at trip-hop with plenty of drum programming, compressed trumpet blasts on the chorus and loads of reverb. It sounds more of-its-time than anything else here but it retains Mann’s cleverness and bite (“With Monopoly money / we’ll be buying the funny farm”) and anticipates her later experiments with (even) moodier tempos and electronic textures. In direct contrast, “Just Like Anyone”, her requiem for recently departed singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley is a simple acoustic guitar, accordion and violin ballad that clocks in at a concise 83 seconds. Yet, to her credit, like the Bacharach pastiches, neither song feels at all out of place.

While one can now view Bachelor No. 2 as an album Mann wrote and recorded when her career was in flux (the Magnolia soundtrack, which resulted in an Academy Award nomination for “Save Me” for Best Original Song, exposed her to a wider audience), it worked for the exact same reason its two predecessors did—as a songwriter, Mann was at the top of her game, and as an album, it’s remarkably consistent. It plays like any great collection of songs should; one can sense the craft that went into and easily hum along with each one. Heck, even the pleasant, radio-friendly “Susan” (the most comparably rote song here) would be an absolute highlight on a Crow or Cole LP.

Neither Magnolia nor this album exactly made Mann a household name, but she’s forged a more venerable career than many of her ‘80s new wave or ‘90s alt-rock peers. Her subsequent discography contains plenty of gems, from “Video” to “Labrador” to “Milwaukee” (that last one from The Both, a collaborative LP with Ted Leo); none of her later albums, however, are in quite the same league as those first three. Lost In Space lacks their sonic lucidity and tonal sharpness, The Forgotten Arm treads over well-worn musical tropes with diminishing results, @#%&! Smilers has too many distracting squelchy keyboards, etc. But those are all quibbles—when she’s on, she’s in the running for one of the best songwriters of her generation. Although it’s still too soon to tell (having come out a week ago at this writing), her latest album, the somber, acoustic, impeccably titled Mental Illness is mighty promising—maybe even her best since Bachelor No. 2.

Up next: maybe the best obscure singer/songwriter of his generation.

“How Am I Different”:

“Satellite”:

Aimee Mann, “I’m With Stupid”

aimee-mann-im-with-stupid-800px

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #52 – released January 30, 1996)

Track listing: Long Shot / Choice In The Matter / Sugarcoated / You Could Make a Killing / Superball / Amateur / All Over Now / Par For The Course / You’re With Stupid Now / That’s Just What You Are / Frankenstein / Ray / It’s Not Safe

The first lyrics on Aimee Mann’s second album are “You fucked it up”; given the fate of her critically acclaimed but sales-deprived solo debut Whatever, you can understand why she’s a little pissed off. From its title on down, I’m With Stupid oozes venom at both ex-lovers and ex-record labels but it’s deliciously knowing and cathartic rather than steeped in bitterness. It also finds the ex-‘Til Tuesday vocalist refining her sound a bit, retaining her Beatles-esque melodicism while stripping away some of the Whatever’s considerable gloss. As with Boys for Pele, in early ’96 it was a highly anticipated album for me (especially as its US release came six months after the rest of the world’s); however, unlike the challenging, oft-obtuse Pele, it hit directly upon contact.

And yet, I’m With Stupid is not exactly Whatever II—this is immediately apparent when you compare their openers. Whereas the previous album’s “I Should’ve Known” gradually winds up to life via mechanical sounds leading into loud guitars and a big beat, Stupid’s “Long Shot” follows a simple count-off with a basic, distorted riff, soon joined by bass and shuffling percussion and finally, Mann’s exquisitely bemused vocal (and that kicker of an opening line). As catchy as “I Should’ve Known” but far more contained, the song’s cool detachment notably serves as a counterpoint to Mann’s kiss-off lyrics—that is, until they unexpectedly take a vulnerable turn near the end when she sings, “And all that stuff / I knew before / just turned into / ‘Please love me more.’”

Although she doesn’t utter another “fuck” until the final track, the songs following “Long Shot” are just as acerbic, possibly even more. “Choice In The Matter” shrewdly whittles away its antagonist to nearly nothing while briefly throwing in a chorus of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” (gleefully adding, “hope you drown and never come back”) for good measure. Titles like “You Could Make A Killing” and “That’s Just What You Are” project like-minded sentiments at the outset. “You’re With Stupid Now” belittles its subject for aligning him/herself with a clueless, unnamed other (and also for not knowing “how to manufacture… the crazy will of a Margaret Thatcher.”) Mann’s ever-rising vitriol nearly peaks on “Sugarcoated” (co-written with ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, who also plays on and contributes a sinewy solo to it) with this delectable dressing-down in the bridge: “And out of your mouth / comes a string of clichés / now I have given you so much rope / you should have been swinging for days / but you keep spinning it out.” Producer Jon Brion’s echoing backing vocal that follows conveys just the right amount of sarcasm.

Brion, who also produced Whatever, again lends his ultra-distinctive touch to Stupid, particularly in the odd, raindrop-like piano (or is that guitar?) sparkling all over the first few seconds of “You Could Make A Killing”, the old-timey tack piano in “Ray” and the fluttering, Mellotron-like keyboards throughout “Frankenstein” and “Amateur”. However, he’s generally more restrained this time. Stupid mostly adheres to guitar-bass-drums-voice arrangements whose relative simplicity help accentuate the other flavors occasionally popping up in the mix: fellow former Bostonian Juliana Hatfield’s simpatico backing vocals on “You Could Make A Killing” and “Amateur”; even more complimentary harmonies from Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford on three other tracks; Brion’s bass harmonica, further sweetening the irresistible bubblegum of “Superball”; the very of-its-time but crisply effective drum loop powering “That’s Just What You Are” which first appeared, improbably enough, on the Melrose Place soundtrack the year before and remains Mann’s only solo Billboard Hot 100 entry (straight in at #93!) to date.

Stupid’s first seven tracks arguably comprise the most solid run of tunes on any of Mann’s albums, culminating in “All Over Now”, a cunning, cutting, mid-tempo acoustic/electric rocker as frank and liberating as anything off of Alanis Morrissette’s then-contemporary/ubiquitous Jagged Little Pill (it has aged far better as well). With Big Star harmonies over late-Beatles guitars, she sings “And I’m free-eeee” in the chorus following the song’s title, and later, repeats the line, “It’s got nothing to do with me,” the final lyric of “Superball” two tracks before. In a slight, Abbey Road-like touch, “All Over Now” itself ends on a lyric from “Superball” (“And I warned you now / the velocity I’m gathering.”) It’s the sort of touch a casual listener may not even pick up on, craftily thrown in there for cleverness’ sake.

Still, Mann doesn’t rest on being clever. Smart lyrics, striking production and strong melodies can all add up to a good album (sometimes a great one); what pushes Mann and Stupid ahead of the pack is the wry, weary, complicated persona she began developing on Whatever that fully comes into its own here. She’s often dismissed as an “ice queen” for her cool, analytical put-downs; admittedly, a mass-market audience will likely never relate to a barbed sentiment such as, “When you’re building your own creation / nothing’s better than real / than a real imitation,” (from “Frankenstein”). At this point in her career, she’s not playing down to her intended listener, which is refreshing but also tricky—how does one achieve that perfect balance of being relatable and also distinct?

For this singer/songwriter, a sense of humor is key. After all, making “You fucked it up” as your first words on an album is more an act of playfulness than one drawn out of spite or malice, although such feelings are present (if masked) behind the way those words are presented. “That’s Just What You Are” similarly sounds like the giddiest kiss-off ever, thanks to its peppy, upbeat verve and the sprightly, staccato delivery of such lyrics as, “It’s not like you would lose some critical piece / if somehow you moved point A to point B.” “Superball”, which I once described as what Josie and The Pussycats would’ve sounded like if they really rocked (this was years before the 2001 movie adaptation with its off-the-charts irony), seems custom-made to make all who hear it commence automatically bouncing around like a carefree, grinning idiot.

Of course, too much “fun” can lead to unrelenting archness. Mann rectifies this by occasionally dropping the mask and embracing those often submerged but always present raw emotions. They first surface on “Amateur” and its gentle, disenchanted chorus of, “I was hoping that you’d know better than that / I was hoping, but you’re an amateur.” She then partially turns the blame on herself, singing, “But I’ve been wrong before.” “Par for the Course” shows even more vulnerability: over six minutes and a slow, four-chord progression, she sings ostensibly to an ex-lover who comes crawling back to her after another failed relationship. A series of short, pointed phrases (one whole verse: “Think how / it could have been / well you should / have said it all then”) obliterates any hope of her taking him back, but the somber guitar, bass, drums and keyboard arrangement (all of it performed by Mann) is played straight, and effectively so, gaining all the more power for not sounding like anything else on the album. It doesn’t so much build as simply resound, with Mann singing, “I don’t even know you anymore” again and again, not with disdain or pity but something approaching actual grief.

There’s no shortage of disdain and pity in Stupid’s cautionary closer, “It’s Not Safe”. Saving her most brutal critique for last, it would sound like already-charted territory if not for the sharpness she exhibits: “But you’re the idiot who keeps believing in luck / and you just can’t get it through your head that no one else gives a fuck,” that f-bomb rendered rather beautifully over four notes. As with the rest of Stupid’s barbed-wire kisses, half the fun is trying to figure out whether it’s directed to a former romantic or professional partner. Michael Penn, who plays this song’s guitar solo, married Mann the following year and they’ve been together ever since, so at least she made out well in the first category. As for the second, well, let’s just say she won’t easily run out of material, as we shall see.

Next: Prolonging the buzz.

“Long Shot”:

“All Over Now”:

Aimee Mann, “Whatever”

Aimee_Mann_-_Whatever

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #38 – released May 11, 1993)

Track listing: I Should’ve Known / Fifty Years After The Fair / 4th of July / Could’ve Been Anyone / Put Me On Top / Stupid Thing / Say Anything / Jacob Marley’s Chain / Mr. Harris / I Could Hurt You Now / I Know There’s A Word / I’ve Had It / Way Back When

In 1993, Aimee Mann was best known as the lead singer of ‘Til Tuesday, a Boston quartet who scored one big hit eight years previously (“Voices Carry”), recorded three albums with each selling less than the previous one and split up before the 80s were over. The hit’s iconic music video forever etched a particular image of Mann in many people’s minds—the new wave girl with the single braid who, after three minutes of tolerating her bad, verbally abusive beau, finally, defiantly stands up and sings out loud in a theatre, much to his (and the surrounding audience’s) chagrin. Thus, by the time she re-emerged with her first solo album Whatever, it took most people by surprise, for who had expected that girl with the braid to make something so relatively inventive and smart?

Perhaps the album’s quality would’ve come as less of a shock if ‘Til Tuesday had been more than a one-hit wonder. While much of their early output is of a piece with the slick, period-reminiscent, synth-heavy sound of “Voices Carry”, one can sense Mann struggling to break out of that stylistic box as early as “Coming Up Close”, a gorgeous, sweeping pastoral ballad from the band’s second album Welcome Home (1986). The maturation between even that album and Everything’s Different Now (1988) is almost staggering: although still fairly glossy, the arrangements are far more nuanced (possibly the reason why it flopped, even with such melodic gems as “(Believed You Were) Lucky”), and the songs get their charge from Mann’s prickly, probing lyrics, many of them about her failed romance with fellow singer/songwriter Jules Shear.

Appearing five years later, Whatever and its opener and first single, “I Should’ve Known”, swiftly establishes Mann as the new alt-rock queen of the kiss-off. Following an extended, sonically adventurous intro (as if the track’s mechanisms are gradually coming to life), the guitars and drums soon kick in, along with Mann’s incensed but measured vocal. In ‘Til Tuesday, she never rocked so hard or appeared so explicitly angry, but her wry approach here keeps it all from becoming too heavy. She expertly utilizes both wordplay (“The minute that we hit the wall / I’ve should’ve known / the writing was upon the stall”) and onomatopoeia (the sung ellipses (“dot, dot, dot”) that immediately follow the song title, providing one of the biggest hooks). She even tempers her bitterness with sweet, Beatles-esque “ahhhs”. You could not ask for a better introduction or make a stronger case for Mann’s arrival as a solo artist.

The rest of Whatever dutifully showcases all her melodic instincts and songwriting prowess cultivated since ‘Til Tuesday disbanded. “Could’ve Been Anyone” and the nimble, poised “I Could Hurt You Now” are more sprightly kiss-off tunes in the mold of “I Should’ve Known”, while other songs take a few steps back, tartly addressing problematic relationships while being in the thick of them. In “Say Anything”, she acknowledges “the comfort of one more lame excuse” via a bridge with a wonderfully circular, Todd Rundgren-like bassline before telling her lover in the chorus, “Say anything, ‘cause I’ve heard everything.” Lest you think Mann’s cold as ice, she’s far more vulnerable on the reflective “4th of July”, where her clear-as-a-bell tone and the arrangement’s restraint (it could’ve just as easily been a standard power ballad) leave a lasting imprint. Same thing goes for “Stupid Thing”, a simple but melodically effective breakup song whose sorrow fully registers in both Mann’s front-and-center vocal and an exceptionally expressive guitar solo that practically mimics her tone.

While I doubt Mann would ever deny the confessional nature of her songs, as a narrator, she just as often inhabits characters. “Fifty Years After the Fair” makes sustained references to having lived through a time long before Mann was born, while in “Mr. Harris”, she sings, with intensive, specific detail of falling in love via a May-December romance, a scenario to my knowledge she has not personally experienced (at this writing she’s been married to contemporary/fellow musician Michael Penn for almost two decades). Burning with the just the right mix of optimism and longing for an imagined past, the former’s heavenly jangle-pop is a better fit for her than the latter’s impeccably arranged, classy-but-stuffy chamber music. But both work in her favor to suggest she’s not just all about bad breakups. “Put Me On Top” feels more personal, commenting on her languishing in record label limbo (“I should be riding on a float in the hit parade / instead of sitting on the curb behind the barricade”) but her self-deprecation (“Or at least put some hope in the bottom of the box,” she suggests as a last resort) is more relatable and applicable—pop star or not, who doesn’t want at least the promise of some sort of recognition?

Mann obviously merits recognition for Whatever’s success, but so does its producer, Jon Brion. A session musician who performed with ‘Til Tuesday on their last tour, Brion branched into production with Whatever and his touch immediately distinguishes the album from any other of its time (and also from everything Mann’s recorded since she stopped working with him after her third album.) His arrangements are like sonic playgrounds (think back to the opening of “I Should’ve Known”), favoring unconventional instruments such as calliope, Chamberlin, Mellotron and other effluvia mostly nicked from The Beatles’ post-Sgt. Pepper’s whimsy-enhanced side. Sometimes, he lays it on noticeably thick, such as the flute-and-martial drum chorus of “Jacob Marley’s Chain” or the fairground atmosphere (complete with trombone, old-timey piano and kiddie xylophone) enriching the lovely chord changes and psychedelic pastiche of closer “Way Back When”. Elsewhere, he’s a little subtler but still effective, casually dropping an up-to-the-minute drum loop into the opening of “Could’ve Been Anyone” or providing minimalist keyboard shading to “4th of July”.

As with Brian Eno and Talking Heads, or Thomas Dolby and Prefab Sprout, you sense how perfectly Brion and Mann fit together as producer and artist throughout Whatever, and they save their best for the penultimate track. From its first notes, “I’ve Had It” almost proceeds like clockwork, the percussion, acoustic guitar and piano dutifully repeating a hook soulfully, not mechanically. However, the song really comes to life at the chorus as ringing guitars and a bass harmonica make everything shimmer and glisten; the sensation fortifies the plainspoken awe of Mann’s lyrics as she reminisces about being in a band, and reflects on what she took away from it. She sings, “Oh experience is cheap / if that’s the company you keep / and a chance is all that I need / and I’ve had it.” How refreshing that the song title ends up not a declaration of weariness but a basic acknowledgement of an opportunity welcomed, challenged, tested and occurred. Thankfully, her directness is not at odds with the elegiac, intricate beauty of Brion’s production—they actually complete each other well, preventing “I’ve Had It” from seeming too cynical or, on the other hand, too idealistic.

Whatever was an act of redemption for Mann, turning her into a critical favorite (if not a commercial one). We’ll hear from her (and Brion) again on 100 Albums and discover how she confronts this conundrum by developing a persona steeped in it, while also gradually refining her sound.

Up next: Everybody else is doing it, so why can’t she?

“I Should’ve Known”:

“I’ve Had It”: