Question: If a tree falls in the forest, and the music industry ignores it, does anybody hear?
For a musician struggling in the face of the industry’s indifference, the answer all too often seems to be ‘No’. Aimee Mann is one of the rare exceptions.
Bachelor No. 2 is her first album since 1996’s I’m with Stupid (not including her considerable contribution to the soundtrack for Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent film, Magnolia). In the intervening four years, she has had her fair share of record company woes. Interscope, the label under which she recorded this latest album, was not happy with the result and requested that she make some changes in the direction of a more radio-friendly sound, a request which Mann refused. She proceeded to buy the rights to the work back from the company and bring it to the market herself, under the label SuperEgo.
And all lovers of blissful pop music should be thankful for her audacity. This is an album powered by melody and by Mann’s amazingly expressive voice. From the very first track, the songs have all the qualities of really good pop—unhurried yet never overlong, bouncy yet thoughtful, catchy yet lingering. She sings these 13 songs in a voice at once delicate and defiant, lonely and warm, innocent and knowing. And although, occasionally, the lyrics are somewhat indecipherable, the power and versatility of her voice leaves no doubt as to their meaning.
The first two songs introduce us to Mann’s edgy worldview with a gentle tone flowing along beneath the sardonic lyrics (“Just one question before I pack / When you fuck it up later / Do I get my money back?”) and laid-back rhythms, but it is in the third track, “Red Vines,” that this album really comes into its own, and from there on out, there’s no looking back. The listener hasn’t got a chance to escape the seemingly endless procession of melodic hooks and vocal gymnastics. “The Fall of the World’s Own Optimist” follows, co-written with Elvis Costello—another person who knows a thing or three about creating prefect pop—with its chorus that will attach itself to the mind for days.
The vocals range from the hopeful warmth of “Just Like Anyone” to the anger and tired disappointment of “It Takes All Kinds.” The lyrics switch from indie-friendly obscurity to shockingly blunt directness and back again to murky indecipherably. Yet, with an one or two exceptions, she never loses thread of the music nor the attention of the listener.
It is Mann’s name on the jacket and, appropriately, it is her singing that is the focus here. However, the musical accompaniment, which has a notably sophistication and depth, cannot be ignored. The producer of I’m with Stupid, John Brion, features strongly on guitar as well as having co-written and produced two of the tracks. In addition to himself and Elvis Costello, other helpers include Julianna Hatfield and Grant Lee Phillips (of Grant Lee Buffalo fame). The music is strong, but never overpowering. And in those moments when the music stops and Mann’s voice fills up the silence, it can appear as if the world has suddenly fallen quiet out of sheer admiration.
There are a couple of points on which this album may be faulted. There is a sense on some of the songs that the words and the music don’t quite match. As if they had been written separately and then forced together. But, again, Mann’s voice compensates for this shortcoming and, after a few listens, the feeling fades. Likewise, the one or two weaker songs in the collection (Ghost World in particular) are just about saved from falling flat by the quality of the singing.
Overall this is an album that captures all the sweetness and ache of love and betrayal, hope and disappointment. Like a quick hit of Sambuca, it goes in sweet but leaves a trail of fire as it sinks down. Though there is certainly a dark side and an anger to many of these songs, Mann seems to understand that sometimes a whisper is more effective than a shriek and understands also how to use melody to insinuate her thoughts into the unconscious of the listener. There is no wailing or screaming here, just perfectly delivered pop.
For anyone who was blown away by Aimee Mann’s solo debut Whatever this album is a must-have. It signals a return to form after the, to my mind, disappointing I’m with Stupid. It manages to make a big tear in the curtain of mediocrity that has been covering the music industry over the past few months, and let in a generous dollop of light. Despite what record industry execs may think.