Oh, Mann

Three years and one bad record deal later, Aimee Mann returns -- with two wonderful records

Not that Mann is a dilettante, a fake; far from it. Whatever, released in 1993, I'm With Stupid from 1996, and now Bachelor No. 2 (portions of which are available from www.aimeemann.com) and Magnolia reveal a songwriter who fits neatly on a timeline that begins with Burt Bacharach, runs through Carole King and Randy Newman and Elvis Costello and Difford-Tilbrook, and ends with Ron Sexsmith and Matthew Sweet. She writes lyrics like someone who has never once apologized for anything; to call her a confessional songwriter would mean she has something to concede, and that label does not at all fit her. And Mann crafts melodies that sound as though they existed once, only to have been reduced to cotton-candy echoes until she rescued them. Moments may only remind you of the Kinks, of the Beatles, of some old Dionne Warwick song you heard as a child. But never do those instants sound stolen. Absorbed, perhaps.

Yet hers has not been an easy existence in the music business. She has forever been the butt of the industry's old joke that the better you are, the worse you get treated -- unless you're Richard Thompson, who has been allowed to keep his deal with Capitol despite selling in the negatives. Mann's particular bit of biz hell began 11 years ago, when Epic Records told her 'Til Tuesday's third record for the label, Everything's Different Now, wasn't the singles-laden disc they were expecting...or, now, demanding. The Epic brain trust suggested she pair up with Diane Warren, which only made sense, since Mann has often been mistaken for Kim Carnes and Laura Branigan.

Mann, of course, balked, instead co-writing "The Other End (Of the Telescope)," among the most trenchant pop songs of the 1980s, with Elvis Costello. Epic was so taken with the Costello addition, it promoted the album as though it didn't even exist. Still, it would take Mann more than three years to extract herself from her deal with the label. The label had, in essence, silenced her: She could write all she wanted, but no one would be able to hear a single note.

Aimee Mann sings to Tom Cruise and William H. Macy in the video for "Save Me," one of eight Mann songs from the forthcoming Magnolia soundtrack.
Aimee Mann sings to Tom Cruise and William H. Macy in the video for "Save Me," one of eight Mann songs from the forthcoming Magnolia soundtrack.
Mann with Michael Hausman, the former 'Til Tuesday drummer who has since become her manager
Mann with Michael Hausman, the former 'Til Tuesday drummer who has since become her manager

By that point, Mann had convinced herself that her label troubles were her own doing. She insists she wanted the higher-ups at the label to like her, even though she would eventually accrue quite the reputation as someone difficult to work with. She says the more the label's executives rejected her, the harder she tried to win their respect and affection; they wanted the Hit Single, and she swears she tried to deliver it, as though such a thing were even possible.

That, of course, is not the entire truth. Mann would not work with Epic's songwriters or producers, so she preferred to give up rather than give in. That's why Everything's Different Now is a half-brilliant record -- it's too much push and not enough pull, spite standing in for inspiration.

"The last 'Til Tuesday record has moments I wasn't proud of, because I tried to play the game," Mann says. "Then I learned, and I knew better. But it made it a less-than-perfect record, because I tried to please them. And even then, they're not pleased with an Elvis Costello co-write. They don't care about that. That doesn't please them. But I really think the single thing that kept me going through the years of being imprisoned on Epic and having my music absolutely dismissed by them and not be allowed to leave and make a record for someone else, the only thing that kept me going was knowing that Elvis Costello thought I was good. That bolstered my tiny little nugget of self-esteem, which was getting pretty small by then."

After finally extricating herself from Epic, Mann began working on her first solo record. She would finance the disc, write or co-write all the songs, and co-produce the album with former Grays guitarist Jon Brion, among the most sagacious of the current crop of Beatles-damaged pop musicians (he since worked with, and in many ways defined, the likes of Sam Phillips and Fiona Apple). In Brion, Mann found what she likes to describe as her "shadow self" -- meaning, someone who knew how to make tangible all the random sounds she heard in her head but could never translate inside a studio. With Brion, with whom Mann lived for a while, and former 'Til Tuesday drummer Michael Hausman (who would become her manager), Mann made the perfect pop record -- and exacted revenge on those who had screwed her over, from old boyfriends to old labels. Those themes would remain an integral part of her work. (Among the song titles on Bachelor No. 2: "The Fall of the World's Own Optimist," "Calling it Quits," and "Nothing Is Good Enough.")

That Whatever, which was eventually picked up by Imago Records, was so absolutely beautiful -- lush even during its silent moments, the sound of a head hitting a pillow instead of a fist striking a jaw -- only confounded matters more. How could someone so furious, so absolutely corrosive ("I should be riding on a float in the hit parade," she sang, "instead of standing on the curb behind the barricade"), make such utterly exquisite, insinuating music? The music and lyrics almost seemed at odds with each other.

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