AIMEE MANN: CHARMER (2012)
1) Charmer; 2) Disappeared; 3) Labrador; 4) Crazytown; 5) Soon Enough; 6) Living A Lie; 7) Slip And Roll; 8) Gumby; 9) Gamma Ray; 10) Barfly; 11) Red Flag Diver.
Okay, I happily admit to having been wrong. This is by no means an innovative or unpredictable record, but it definitely soars above «mediocre». Essentially, this is Smilers done right. Same laid back atmosphere, same laziness, same meditative vocals, same silly synthesizers, same humbleness — but with more electric guitars, deeper production, and, most importantly, with better written songs. This is at least as consistent as Forgotten Arm, maybe more so, and it has a couple instant classics for all future gold compilations.
Since the themes of the record do not differ much from Aimee's usual bag — mainly character assassinations, varying only in degrees of abstraction — it is gracefully short, curtseying out of sight some time before the fourty-minute barrier is over, and for most people, there will probably be a couple pieces of moody, but insubstantial filler, making its charms even shorter (me, I do not care for the dreary-slow waltz of ʽSlip And Rollʼ). And that is good: humble albums have to have humble lengths, even if a three year period might seem like a long enough term to write up a CD all the way to its limits.
Cut to the chase: ʽCharmerʼ (the title track) kicks in with a ridiculously catchy «kazoo synth» melody, attenuated by some friendly vocal humming companionship, and this makes it into the most irresistible album opener since ʽHumpty Dumptyʼ — ten years, give or take. The lyrical matter (a sarcastic jab at the quintessential charismatic leader, cleverly set for election year) does not really matter — all that matters is that silly-sweet synth pattern, drifting in and out of Aimee's free-flowing, intelligent singing. Which is what makes Aimee into a first-rate artist: she could just as well be singing about tying her bootlaces, and the song would still produce the same impression — but the lyrics are quite clever anyway.
That strange passion for synthesizers that got rekindled with Smilers is still with her — and, apparently, cooks her up a good name with today's critics, some of which nostalgize quite heavily about their long-gone days of listening to 'Til Tuesday. Not that anything on Smilers or here really sounds like anything that Aimee did in her 'Til Tuesday days — that was in a different world — but it is a possibility that Aimee herself regards this new passion as a rejuvenating move. More power to her, anyway, if it helps her write songs as fine as ʽCrazytownʼ, where the synth line acts as a sorrowful counterpart to her conspicuously «light» vocals. "The girl lives in crazy town / Where craziness gets handed down / Whoever's gonna volunteer / Will only end up living here" is fairly bleek, but her intonations introduce the picture as amusing rather than tragic — and that's good old Aimee for you, always throwing on a cloak of ironic intellectualism over simple emotions, just the way we like it.
The best number on the album, however, is neither ʽCharmerʼ nor ʽCrazytownʼ. It is ʽSoon Enoughʼ, a noble epic in the vein of old warhorses like ʽDeathlyʼ — in fact, I could easily see it making its way onto the Magnolia soundtrack, provided P. T. Anderson still had some spare footage in the vaults for a «new director's cut» or something. It is undescribable — it's all in the vocal hooks this time, and the hooks are mostly intonational and could only come from Aimee — but it is the perfect combination of a little melancholy, a little irony, and a little desperation on top of a bombastic arrangement (capped off with a screechy guitar solo). It's just the kind of song that Smilers so desperately needed to get to the appropriate level.
Other good ones include ʽLabradorʼ (sounds like a Forgotten Arm outtake with all these «tired» harmonies, but an unjustly lost one), the harder-rocking ʽGamma Rayʼ (with a sci-fi battle between the «cosmic» synthesizer and the psycho guitar, as would befit the title), and the rootsy ʽBarflyʼ, whose guitar hook and nonchalant attitude could almost reflect a J. J. Cale influence. But honestly, most of them are good.
In the end, it was all well worth the wait and the non-forgetting. Aimee is not young anymore (although I do have to say that she generally sounds younger here than on Smilers — maybe it's because the singing is «clearer», not as much loaded with deep nasal twang as it was), and her recession into black holes, dark corners, introspection and humility will bar her from making a Bachelor No. 3 or a Found In Space, but she still has her head on, she still rocks when she wants to, and if she can still write one great song per year on the average, that is actually more than is needed to keep her on a steady payroll. At this time, we probably couldn't expect any better — count this as a fully satisfied thumbs up, and one of 2012's best.
Check "Charmer" (MP3) on Amazon