Oh, Mann

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

"To me, the music is part of it, and it's not like a mitigating factor," Mann says. "You can't take the lyrics away from the music. The music is meant to create an emotional tone that the lyrics add to. I don't know if I mean it to be scathing or sneaky. Probably what I mean it to be is, I'll say something that's sad but true, and the music is there to let you know that I really do feel like it's kind of sad."

On Whatever and her three subsequent albums, Mann proved she wasn't so different from someone like Randy Newman, who obscures his vitriol behind layers and layers of satin and silk. Newman uses an orchestra to masquerade his intentions; he hides his knife behind the string section, gives his shotgun to the man with the tuba. Mann, on the other hand, layers her records with mellotrons and chamberlains and harmoniums. Hers are the weapons of children raised on Pet Sounds and '70s Kinks records and Rubber Soul -- and, eventually, friendships with members of XTC, Squeeze, and Suede.

Such is the effect of the very best pop music when it's at once honest and subversive. Mann would prove a most revelatory, yet sneaky, kind of pop performer. More than once, a critic would listen to the gorgeousness of the music and mistake her songs as those of a woman in love with love, when the truth existed on an entirely different planet.

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

"Oh, my God, I know," she says. "Well, it's because I'm a girl, so God forbid I could ever write about anything else except the boy who wouldn't love me. I do think a lot of that goes on when you hear a song by a girl and go, 'Oh, she's mad at her boyfriend,' like there's no other possible relationship or dynamic that could exist for a woman. I think a lot of people are still really locked into that. It's still irritating to me. Not that much -- like a bad mosquito night, about like that. Nothing that couldn't be fixed with a little mesh, a little Off, and some slapping."

Despite the album's rockcrit acclaim -- Whatever probably sold as many copies as were sent to critics -- Mann again found herself tangled in the barbed wire of record-label politics. Advance cassettes of her second solo album, I'm With Stupid, were sent to critics in 1995; it was on Imago's release schedule that year, but when the label went bust, Mann's record was stuck in limbo. Eventually, Geffen Records rescued it from the pop compost heap -- maybe she was a free-agent bargain who didn't come with a signing bonus, maybe they actually gave a shit. Soon enough, they wouldn't.

I'm with Stupid one-upped its predecessor: It was a crystalline pop record produced by Brion that featured the likes of Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, Juliana Hatfield, soon-to-be-husband Michael Penn, and Suede's Bernard Butler (he performs on the song "Sugarcoated," which is allegedly about Butler actually being a swell guy and not the prick he was portrayed as when he quit Suede). Every song seemed like a hit, so radio-friendly they practically hugged disc jockeys. Yet it didn't crack radio, and getting played on KERA didn't count. Mann ended up getting more press for her contribution to Geffen's Christmas album that year than for her own -- and maybe for the 'Til Tuesday greatest-hits package Sony released in 1996.

During a summer 1996 performance at Los Angeles' John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, Mann quipped to the audience that her brother had figured out why she wasn't successful -- she didn't have a gimmick. "No, I'm not bitter," she told the crowd, and she wasn't even half-joking -- especially not with the amphitheater filled with posters advertising opener Ron Sexsmith and...oops...Maria McKee.

Mann deserved better than to be one more forgotten record. I'm with Stupid remains a funny, defiant declaration: Mann doesn't write love songs as much as she composes acid kiss-offs to ex-lovers and labels. Her boyfriends are buffoons, idiots, liars, cheats, traitors; she cuts then down and chops them up ("You fucked it up," she declares during the album's very first moments), looks in the rear-view mirror only to make sure she doesn't miss you when she backs the car up one more time. She doesn't excuse imperfections ("That's Just What You Are"), doesn't forgive or forget ("Par for the Course"), and if there's a soft spot in her heart, it's there for her alone ("And I warn you now/The velocity I'm gathering").

Nonetheless, three years later, Mann found herself once more caught in the show-biz gears -- until Interscope finally relented, giving her back Bachelor No. 2, no doubt to get her the hell out of their faces. By early this year, Mann had become the symbol of how easy it is to be ground up in the machinations of an industry that treats its finest artists as distractions to be tossed aside when something younger and prettier comes along. Her travails with Interscope Records alone have become the stuff of mythic madness: Rare is the musician who garners 5,000 words in The New York Times Magazine, but Mann managed such a feat during the summer, filling page after page with her vitriol.

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