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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Aimee Mann: Whatever


AIMEE MANN: WHATEVER (1993)

1) I Should've Known; 2) Fifty Years After The Fair; 3) 4th Of July; 4) Could've Been Anyone; 5) Put Me On Top; 6) Stupid Thing; 7) Say Anything; 8) Jacob Marley's Chain; 9) Mr. Harris; 10) I Could Hurt You Now; 11) I Know There's A Word; 12) I've Had It; 13) Way Back When.

You have to truly admire a person who can take one particular experience in his/her life, no mat­ter how traumatic, and turn it into a subject matter for a zillion artistic statements. For Aimee Mann, the ex-cofounder of 'Til Tuesday, this subject matter was her breakup with fellow artist Jules Shear. (Granted, prior to that, she had a breakup with fellow artist Michael Hausman, but let us presume that that particular breakup served as her subject matter for 'Til Tuesday).

What this means is that I am not qualified, in any major capacity, to review Whatever. It is an album about breaking up, from top to bottom, and should have born the sticker PARTICULAR­LY RECOMMENDED FOR BROKEN HEARTS ALL OVER THE WORLD both on initial and subsequent releases. Fate has so far guided me kindly, preventing my heart from breaking, and so I am tempted to sneer at the album's emotional monotonousness rather than identify with it. But then it also makes you wonder — just how stuck up one must be to spend all of one's creative energy lamenting a three-year old breakup?

Oc­casionally, Mann herself acknowledges that her mind may be bent on this one problem to a some­what sharper angle than it should: 'It's one of my faults that I can't quell my past - I ought to have gotten it gone' ('4th Of July'). But the thing that irritates me most of all is the absolute self-righteousness of it all: song after song, it is the ex-partner who carries one hundred, no, one thou­sand percent of the blame. Just look at this: 'This is for the one who was false, who taught me about building walls' ('I Could Hurt You Now'); 'Oh you stupid thing, it wasn't me that you out­smarted' ('Stupid Thing'); 'I should've known you would betray me but without the kiss' ('I Should've Known'); 'Someday you'll wake up and say... now she's got the river down which I sold her' ('4th Of July'). Makes Bob Dylan and Lindsey Buckingham look like little lollipop kids. The most ironic thing of it all, of course, is that the more she tries to convince herself and the audience that 'I got rid of that ghost', the clearer you understand that 'that ghost' hardly leaves her in the shower, let alone in a recording studio.

Now comes the good news. In the hands of a non-talent — and the world, these days, is all but ruled by breakup-harboring non-talents armed with noisy guitars and unloved pianos — these so-so lyrics would have been set to equally so-so music, with the album relegated to the trash heap immediately upon release. But if Aimee doesn't have a world vision fit for a great artist, she certainly knows how to compose solid pop melodies. Most of these songs are memorable, with a well-found combination of early Nineties production techniques and Sixties jangle-pop values (it's no coincidence that Roger McGuinn himself guest stars on 'Fifty Years After The Fair'). If Mann's work in 'Til Tuesday today sounds somewhat dated (it was an Eighties band, after all), then Whatever, released to a world that had learned to appreciate the values of grunge, still manages to sound fresh and alive, with lovely acoustic work, colourful electric tones, and various small surprises along the way (e. g., the 'marching band' emulation on 'Jacob Marley's Chain').

It is these melodies and arrangements that save Whatever from drowning in its self-pity — be­cause it is very easy to distance yourself from the lyrics and just enjoy the record for its strengths. The interlocking guitars on 'Fifty Years After The Fair' epitomize the Nineties' capacity of crea­ting sheer sonical loveliness; 'Could've Been Anyone' slyly quotes the opening chords from the Byrds' 'Mr. Tambourine Man' (you have to look for it, though), and wisely opts for intelligent, complex combinations of 12-string and electric guitars instead of the three-chord slash that, say, an Avril Lavigne of today would have plopped onto it; 'Way Back When' is Kinks-derived Brit pop that borrows, not steals, from cheery vaudeville and adds but a slice of graceful melancholia; and so on, and so on.

In short - Miss Mann's lyrics may leave a lot to be desired (in terms of variety, at least), but her musical tastes are impeccable and her musical skills undeniable. And so, even if, like I said, I still don't feel qualified to pronounce judgement on this, I can easily relate to the music with my heart — and let it whisk the negative judgement from the brain and turn it into a positive one. Thumbs up, most definitely.

3 comments:

  1. I'm listening to this album right now. What prompted me was your review on Jagged Little Pill which compared that album with this one. I must say, I'm surprised I have never heard of Aimee Man before. My favorite line off your review is this one:

    "The most ironic thing of it all, of course, is that the more she tries to convince herself and the audience that 'I got rid of that ghost', the clearer you understand that 'that ghost' hardly leaves her in the shower, let alone in a recording studio".

    It made me chuckle, but it's kinda true.

    Mike

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  2. Just a comment about songwriting and inspiration...

    You say: "(Granted, prior to that, she had a breakup with fellow artist Michael Hausman, but let us presume that that particular breakup served as her subject matter for 'Til Tuesday)."

    We don't need to presume - according to allmusic.com, it's canon:

    "By the time the group recorded its 1985 debut, Voices Carry, Mann and Hausman had separated and their failed romance provided the basis for many of the songs on their album."

    According to the same blurb, when Aimee broke up with Jules Shear, she entered a writer's block, which ended when she collaborated with Elvis Costello. Given that both 'Til Tuesday's final album and Aimee Mann's first album are chock full of ruminations on the breakup, I think he should change his stage name to Laxative Costello ;)

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