- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Aimee Mann

#%&*! Smilers

Aimee Mann is a poet of declining fortunes and burst bubbles. Since “Voices Carry,” the 1985 hit with Til Tuesday that brought Miss Mann her first popular acclaim, she has been singing about

jilted lovers, misunderstood artists, workaday grinds with unfulfilled dreams and erstwhile big shots. On “Smilers,” she offers a cast of characters that’s diverse in geography, age and gender but united in suffering. Miss Mann inhabits these voices with the ease and grace of a skilled short-story writer.

It’s easy to miss the subtleties here unless one listens attentively and repeatedly to the songs - preferably with the aid of lyric sheets. The songs on “Smilers” have a way of bleeding together. The rhythms don’t vary much, and Miss Mann’s voice, as mellow and sweet as caramel candy, doesn’t draw attention to extremes of feeling.

She gives a straight, occasionally flat read to her lyrics, where perhaps a less talented and less confident singer might point the way to emotional peaks and valleys with telltale inflections.

The album’s first single, the amphetamine-fueled “Freeway,” straddles the line between upbeat and manic as it tracks a Southern Californian speed freak’s jangled jaunt to score drugs. Miss Mann sings, “You’ve got a lot of money/ but you cannot get your bills paid/ The sacrifice is worth it / Just to hang around the arcade.” Her tone isn’t sympathetic, but it isn’t dripping with contempt, either - here as elsewhere, she’s just the narrator.

The songs differ mostly in their instrumentation. On “Phoenix,” a story about a woman fleeing a destructive romance, the ambivalent mix of relief and regret is conveyed elegantly with a synthesized pedal-steel effect mixed with an overlay of cello. Miss Mann sings, “It’s hard to know when / To cut and run / You balance heartache / With your fun / When the scales top / you know you’re done,” with remarkable coolness, even as a swell of strings ratchets up the anxiety.

The title of the track “It’s Over” is basically a summation of the theme of the album. The song feels like a scolding for an aging man-child who skated through life for a time on looks and talent, until those qualities dried up. Miss Mann sings, “But you sit there in the darkness / And you make plans but they’re hopeless / And you blame god when you’re lonely / And you’ll call it fate / When you show up too late / And it’s over.” Again, the instrumentation supplies most of the emotional content - the upbeat singsong piano riff characterizes the hapless protagonist as the strings speak to his plight.

“Borrowing Time” is built around a Moog part that’s halfway between the circus sound of a calliope and the eerie shimmer of a Theremin. Here, as elsewhere, Miss Mann’s voice doesn’t betray the contradictions she sings about with lines such as, “Today she’s singing a song called Hallelujah/You stay, she’s bringing the poison apple to you.” A horn trio plays in march time under the lyrics, building to an exuberant crescendo before cutting out. It’s very catchy - the kind of song that impels the listener to clap along, at least until its intimations of mortality become unbearably apparent.

On “Smilers,” Miss Mann makes a virtue out of being a buzz-kill. She writes brilliantly about people confronting their illusions, and if her losers aren’t exactly lovable, they are at least recognizable.

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