@#%&*! SMILERS (2008)
1) Freeway; 2) Stranger Into Starman; 3) Looking For Nothing; 4) Phoenix; 5) Borrowing Time; 6) It’s Over; 7) 31 Today; 8) The Great Beyond; 9) Medicine Wheel; 10) Columbus Avenue; 11) Little Tornado; 12) True Believer; 13) Ballantines.
The "conceptual" framework is gone, but the problems, unfortunately, remain. Everything on here is fairly lightweight, starting with the ironic title (apparently copped by Aimee from an Internet board reflecting some guy's frustration over other people's abuse of the smiley signs) and ending with the fact that the record is entirely free of electric guitars. This is Aimee Mann unplugged, if you don't count the cheap synthesizer sound on 'Freeway' and other tracks.
That in itself might not be difficult to take if not for the fact that the melodies are hard to be bowled over. A large part of the magic of Lost In Space, for instance, were its numerous clever ideas on how to create and dissipate atmosphere — where electric guitars were as necessary and useful as chimes and background vocals and strings and noises and subtle mix dislocations — and I'm not sure the spell would have eventually worked if it were just Aimee and her acoustic. But on Smilers, time and time over again, that's just how it goes. The only track where there's a little "sonic mystery" present is 'The Great Beyond', whose 'go, honey, go into the ocean' really manages to convey a bit of 'going into the ocean', and it feels out of place.
And then you start noticing how there's really a lot of recycling and how — oh my goodness — maybe she really doesn't have anything more to say? What is there in the slow, dreary waltzing of 'It's Over', for instance, that wasn't already present in the slow, dreary waltzing of 'Nothing Is Good Enough'? And, to boot, that song also had a catchy chorus which this song lacks entirely. At least give us one of your trademark brethtaking falsetto lines, then. What? Still no dice?
The promoted track was 'Freeway', a lively pop tune that, on the surface, is about as good as any lively pop tune from Aimee, but the wailing synthesizer waves that prop up Mann's rhythm track can be passed off as cheesy, and the whole effort seems just a tad lazy to properly guarantee the song's status of
At this point, however, let us step back a bit and consider the circumstances. There's a song on here called '31 Today' (actually, it may be the best song on the album, with beautiful vocal dynamics, although once again we could all live without the crappy synth pattern), one of Aimee's usual odes to depression, but don't let it consciously fool you — she isn't "31 today", as she was born in 1960, and, although her amazingly good looks could still fool plenty of innocents, what we have here, in 2008, is a perfectly well established singer-songwriter with nothing whatsoever left to prove. Even her usual moroseness doesn't hit nowhere near as hard because, really, she's got nothing left to be morose about — she has a family, a decent income source, she's quite content about her small, but steady fanbase, and she's already ensured herself a firm place in the halls of fame — the real ones, well away from Cleveland.
And in that respect, Smilers is a lazy, pacifying, derivative album because, logically, it could hardly be understood how it could be anything else. Maybe if she were politically conscious, but she never was; she is a one hundred percent introvert who wouldn't want to pretend that she's got, oh, I dunno, environmental concerns, if she really hasn't got them. The only extrovert tune on the album is 'Borrowing Time', which one could interpret as a heartfelt call to action — 'the kings of yesterday falling, but you'll come when destiny's calling, get up, get up, you're borrowing time' — but, as she herself has explained many a time in interviews and onstage, it was a song originally written for Shrek 3 — and it didn't even manage to make it into the movie!
So I guess it wouldn't be either wrong or particularly painful to admit that with Smilers, Aimee finally outlives her prime. Which doesn't mean she won't be able to churn out more of these pleasant, but relatively mediocre collections in years to come, and more power to her, because I can totally see how the dedicated fan would still praise this to heaven. Heck, I am no dedicated fan, and I still give this a thumbs up, just don't make it your first purchase.