Short review: If you really like Aimee Mann, go get this. You’ve been waiting four years for it, and it was lovingly made for you.
Bits of trivia: Aimee Mann’s vocals are featured in a (mock-serious) song in the nausea-fest Tim and Eric’s Billion-Dollar Movie. She’s cameo-ed in the Coen Brothers comedy The Big Lebowski and IFC’s hipster-savaging Portlandia. Clearly, she’s open to broader stuff, and I’ll bet she’s a funny gal. Even her latest videos — “Charmer,” which features Laura Linney as a robot double for Aimee, and “Labrador,” which parodies ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” — both add a layer of humor to the otherwise sober songs. But however sympathetic she is to it, when you just focus on the music, humor really hasn’t ever had a much of a place in the universe of Aimee Mann music, unless you count wry smiles and uneasy grimaces.
Should it? Not necessarily, but the release of her new CD Charmer (her first since 2008) underlines the fact that if Aimee does have a spark of something different tucked away inside her waiting to be unleashed within her own art, she’s reluctant to show it, pretty much for the length of her solo career. And how important is it for an artist to try and “stretch” when she does what she does so well, anyway?
If Mann has a “type” of song , it’s wistful and resigned-in-spirit, and often editorializes or chastises behavior of friends, lovers, etc.; it’s immaculately crafted and produced to a sheen and features her admittedly beautiful, sleepy-sounding, limited-range voice. It’s still in abundance here. After the soulful groove of the opening title track, things settle into amiable and familiar territory, with the moderately paced “Disappeared” an open letter to a bitter ex-friend (“Somehow I wound up on your bad side / Till now I guess I had a free ride / But now I join the queue / Of people dead to you”). “Labrador” is a ballad of an ever-returning lover to an ever-unsympathetic partner, while “Crazytown” advises a male friend to steer clear of the drama queen he obsesses over.
Musically, there’s a shift to a more contemporary rock style, but don’t let the trippy cover art fool you; aside from a sonic boost, thicker textures and more of a rock sensibility, this is tried-and-true road-tested Aimee material. So, when I approach this album, I can’t help but look for things that stand out as different. What’s probably getting the most buzz is a rare duet with a guest vocalist, in this case the Shins’ James Mercer on “Living a Lie.” Starting with a squiggly synth and a gently bent melody, it’s a nice change, just enough of a twist to help it rise above, their harmonies intertwining quite nicely in this tale of a couple whose unspoken bargains with each other turn sour. It marks the halfway point of the album and afterwards, the record becomes a bit more traditional, with only the rocker “Gamma Ray” and the modestly folkish change-of-pace “Red Flag Diver” standing out for this listener.
In the end, the main flaw of this better-than-average album may be that it appears at the end of a long line of low-key, well, charmers that have often flown under the radar. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about her consistency. There’s nothing revolutionary about this disc, but it’s a good album whose new-found energies might have benefitted from appearing earlier in her career. No doubt a solid set for the faithful, slightly less so for the uninitiated.