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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Aimee Mann: Bachelor No. 2


AIMEE MANN: BACHELOR NO. 2 (2000)

1) How Am I Different; 2) Nothing Is Good Enough; 3) Red Vines; 4) The Fall Of The World's Own Optimist; 5) Satellite; 6) Deathly; 7) Ghost World; 8) Calling It Quits; 9) Driving Sideways; 10) Just Like Anyone; 11) Susan; 12) It Takes All Kinds; 13) You Do.

Subtitled The Last Remains Of The Dodo, whatever that may symbolize apart from showing the lady's knowledge of paleontology and Alice In Wonderland. She may be right, too, though, if by "Dodo" she means "songwriting that incorporates melodicity, intelligence, and self-restraint", because that's what Bachelor No. 2 is all about. It may or may not be her best record, but it's the one I find hardest of all to criticize.

Back on the ground from the God-substituting creationism of Magnolia, Aimee returns to her self-righteous manhating business, but she has obviously "wised up", and it would be stubborn and shallow to insist she's still writing about her breakups (or breakdowns, for that matter). So, yes, it's the easiest interpretation for lines like 'what was started out with such excitement now I'd gladly end with relief', but it's not the only one possible — the lyrics become open for more than one way of interpretation, and I can't recall any laughable moments, either. She may not be stri­ving for the heights of the great poets, but she's at least on the level of an Elvis Costello — not coincidentally, the latter is credited for co-writing 'The Fall Of The World's Own Optimist'.

I'm not sure if it was really necessary to include three songs from the Magnolia soundtrack, but, considering that the fourth one ('Nothing Is Good Enough') is a vocal version of the instrumental tune on the soundtrack, I guess they weren't really written specifically for the film, but were ra­ther just temporarily "donated" from Aimee's main project, so this cannot serve as even a tech­nical criticism. As for the main project, its retail release was significantly delayed because, appa­rently, Aimee's record label did not deem it commercially viable and ordered her to come up with more hit singles (probably something along the lines of 'Baby One More Time', which was riding up the charts at the time?), leading her to buy out the publishing rights and distributing the record through her web site (apparently, she managed to ship 25,000 copies all by herself!). Which is all the more ridiculous particularly since Bachelor No. 2 is one of Aimee's most accessible records — certainly far more so than the bleak follow-up Lost In Space — and that just about any song on it could easily function as a single, being far more memorable and enjoyable than ninety per­cent of today's MTV garbage.

Musically, she continues to tone down the grungy guitar slash of I'm With Stupid and continues in the Magnolia vein — acoustic and piano-driven stuff, backed up with electric sound a-plenty, but also strings, accordeons, brass, and anything that can be shaped into a solid wall of sound whenever she feels like it. The mood is bitter throughout, but not suicidal or anything: she's not doing this for the sinister purposes of Paul Thomas Anderson, but for her own needs, and she may be pissed at the world, but that doesn't prevent her from enjoying being there; the result is a bright, but angry, inquisitive, but self-assured, record that, third or fourth time around, proves definitely that Aimee is no fluke, but rather one of the most treasurable songwriters of our times.

She is also making some of the prettiest use of her voice you'll ever hear — for instance, on the radically brief snippet 'Just Like Anyone'. She doesn't have a particularly strong voice, and her range isn't particularly wide, and she doesn't know much in the way of "vocal gymnastics", but, like a female Paul McCartney, she knows what it takes to get one trapped in the beauty of the human voice. Or maybe, to use a closer comparison, rather like Suzanne Vega, whose musical style she sometimes approaches on the quieter songs here — especially on the track that is, inci­dentally, titled 'Susan' (any relation?..).

It is joyful to realize there are still writers/performers in this world who can dress their anger into complex colorful forms — for all the fury packed in the lyrics of 'Calling It Quits', preaching against the corporate greed of record companies, it has one gloriously uplifting melody, punctua­ted by marching style brass flourishes; and the middle eight section on 'How Am I Different' flows like a luscious honey stream, but the words are, in fact, 'just a question before I pack — when you fuck it up later, do I get my money back?'

It is just as joyful to witness the brilliance of the God-given talent for songwriting so close up front, like on 'Red Vines', a song which could have been utterly generic pap but where, instead, the vocal melodies in both the verses and the chorus take unpredictable, but delightful and com­pletely smooth twists. If the tune is familiar to you, observe this twist on the ascending 'everyone loves you...' after the first two 'regular' lines, or how the 'cigarettes and Red Vines' chorus is not immediately followed by the rhyming 'I'll be on the sidelines', which would be decent for a so-so songwriter, but by the 'contrapunctus' of 'baby you never do know' — and how normal this sounds, original, but normal. It's all relatively simple, but something tells me it should all be your average musicologist's delight.

If, like me, you tend to be frequently annoyed by singer-songwriters — which is only natural, because most of the time most singer-songwriters strive to be annoying — I can only state for myself that Bachelor No. 2 is one of the least annoying annoying singer-songwriter albums I've ever had the pleasure to listen to, and this sentence alone sets it up in a class of its own. And this, in turn, guarantees a rock-hard thumbs up from the brain, whereas the heart, already accustomed to being seduced by Ms. Mann's charms, follows suit.

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