Oh, Mann

If Aimee Mann had sold one album for each word written about her, she'd make Alanis Morissette look like the struggling indie artist she probably ought to be. Nobody gets more press for having done so apparently little: one hit a very long time ago ("Voices Carry," back when Mann was the rat-tailed singer in 'Til Tuesday), two albums in six years, and not much else. Well, except she did get screwed by three labels in the span of a decade -- a pretty good track record for those keeping score at home. Of course, it's that last little thing that really made her a press darling, especially during the past year. When The New York Times singles you out, with an enormous photo one week and a magazine feature the next, as the reason why major labels are venal, you know you're on to something. Except, of course, a major label.

And maybe Aimee Mann's is an exception tale -- the story of a gifted singer-songwriter who can't get on the radio unless you put her albums on top of one, a woman who's been so battered by labels she nearly quit the business altogether. Her story has been told and retold with such frequency, it might as well be her whole biography. Delete the references to her first band, the Young Snakes; cross out her tenure at the Berklee School of Music, where she studied bass four hours a day; forget about 'Til Tuesday and two solo records that rank among this decade's finest musical moments. All of it pales next to her seemingly lifelong struggle to find a label that understands her, respects her, and, most of all, doesn't get its kicks from ruining her life.

Much of this tale-telling is her own doing: She knows a good hook when she sees one, and journalists are forever hungry for an artist's angry, dissolute words. And the fact is, she'd rather talk about the corrupt business known as show than about her music.

"I'm probably the only artist that will have this viewpoint, but it's obvious to me that a newspaper story or a magazine article about an artist always, always looks for the interesting story, and I understand that," Mann says. "And I don't have anything to say about my music. Sure, you'd want any article to mention your record and how great it is and maybe have a few words to say about it and quote from it, but I don't have anything to say about it. What do I say? I'm really happy about the drum sound we got? Or I think my songwriting is really clever? Or I did this song in the style of Dionne Warwick? I don't know what to say about it."

Spoken like someone who has been the subject of many, many newspaper stories and magazine articles.

But perhaps all that becomes a moot point very soon. In the next few weeks, she will have a considerable amount of music in stores to do its own talking. Within the span of one month, Mann will release two albums -- one of which is the very disc she rescued from the grimy clutches of Interscope Records, which ignored her only until she would let them no more. The other will be, of all things, on a major label.

On December 7, eight of her songs will appear on the Reprise Records soundtrack of Magnolia, the forthcoming film from Boogie Nights writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. In fact, Anderson wrote several scenes using Mann's songs, some a decade old (the kinetic "Momentum") and others brand new ("Wise Up"), as his templates. A line uttered by one female character, Claudia (played by Melora Waters), is a direct lift from Mann's song "Deathly": "Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?" Anderson took that line from Mann, then built the entire character around it. The film even ends with the entire cast singing "Wise Up," and the soon-to-be-ubiquitous video for the song "Save Me" features Mann singing to Tom Cruise, Jason Robards, William Macy, and the rest of the cast. No wonder Anderson has often said that what Simon and Garfunkel's songs were to The Graduate, Mann's songs are to Magnolia -- part of the inseparable whole.

A month later, pending distribution matters, Mann will finally release, on her own Superego Records label, her third solo record: Bachelor No. 2, from which a handful of Magnolia's songs come. Mann finds it not a little ironic that the soundtrack will be released well before Bachelor No. 2, which was turned in to Geffen Records more than a year ago. A freakin' year ago -- long enough for the label to be devoured by last year's Universal Music Group purchase (Geffen became part of Interscope), long enough for Interscope's executives to do nothing at all with the wonderful album except insist it wasn't ready enough.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky