(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”: