Music

Aimee Mann: Charmers

It’s her first new album in four years. She uses elements from her past and shapes it into new material. The record reveals she’s up to her same old tricks. She’s not crazy. She’s back!


Aimee Mann

Charmer

Label: Superego
US Release Date: 2012-09-18
UK Release Date: 2012-09-17
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It was Leonard Cohen who famously wrote, “And you know that she's half crazy / But that's why you want to be there” about his title character “Suzanne”. The appeal of crazy women to apparently sane men is a common phenomenon. In fact it is almost a male rite of passage. Now this is not meant to demean mental and emotional illness. This is a serious topic worthy of sober discussion. However, this is a rock and roll record review and not the place for such a conversation.

And the artist at hand is Aimee Mann, who has written more than a few songs on this topic. In fact, her best known track as a solo artist, “Save Me”, begins with the dramatic line “You look like a perfect fit / For a girl in need of a tourniquet”. The girl in the song is suffering from mental and emotional anguish, not physical bleeding. It is no surprise that Mann revisits this topic again on her latest album with the catchy and clever tune, “Crazytown”.

Now men are attracted to crazy women for a number of reasons. Most crazy women are sane the majority of the time and can be quite enjoyable to be with. The sex is usually good, and the person is grateful for the positive attention. However, when the person goes off the deep end and this occurs regularly, one questions whether the relationship is worth it. Let’s be clear here, I am not talking about the manic pixie girl of film who cutely takes a straight man out of his comfort zone and lets him experience the happy pleasures of the world. I mean the woman whose suicide threats and interactions with the police due to bad behavior cause one to lose sleep, fail at work, and avoid other friends.

Mann portrays this woman in bold strokes, from the lies and danger she presents to what it costs a man to stay with her. No one wants to be the bad person and ruthlessly drop the person who needs help with her life. One gets caught in a web of wanting to help while knowing the cost is too high for the long term.

However, Mann understands no one starts out crazy in life. It is the stuff that happens to us that can makes us that way. She delineates the three steps in another song, “Labrador”. She sings, “You get bored, you got mad, then you went crazy." Think of the character in that other song from the MTV-era Mann is known for as part of ‘Til Tuesday, “Voices Carry”. She sits in the audience at the fancy concert hall bored by the proceedings, gets mad at the way she’s ignored by her companion, then loses it and acts inappropriately in a way that can best be defined as crazy. The video is true to the song, which manifests itself as a feminist parable, but now Mann sees the incident from the other side; if a man tells you to shut up during a performance, he’s not squelching you because you are a woman but because you are acting improperly.

Speaking of characters from the past, Mann resurrects the former child prodigy, now an alcoholic queen played by Henry Gibson in Magnolia, a movie written around her songs, in “Living a Lie”. She’s joined by James Mercer from The Shins. “No one bears a grudge like a boy genius just past his prime / Gilding his cage one bar at a time”, Mann croons with a wink. The emphasis on the dual meaning of “bar” works beautifully to nail the prison of lies and drink that has taken over the person’s identity

The other eight cuts on the album likewise deal with people using their personal behavior to control other people. Mann understands the irony. On the title song she admits that the scheming person finds oneself manipulated by his or her own actions out of insecurity. The person feels like a fraud because one cannot be oneself, one always has to be the charmer. Like The Marvelettes used to sing, “Things just ain’t the same any time the hunter gets captured by the game.” Indeed.

The music on Charmer could be classified as pop psychedelica (think of The Beatles circa 1965 with modern synths and production). The instrumentation is always bright, even when the lyrics get dark. This sheen makes the unpleasant characters seem not so bad. But Mann is also a maven of the one-liner. She can hook you instrumentally into following along and then provide a telling detail or two that lets you know what the deeper lesson is. Saying someone is “the master of the thankless task” or “feeding blue jays at the wrong address” conveys much more than the innocent lines initially suggest. Not to get too lit crit heavy here, but the connotations of self-effacement in the first line and the fact that blue jays always nest at some other bird’s nest reveal there is more going on then initially suggested.

It’s tempting to play psychoanalyst and see Mann as the crazy girl of her songs, the once 20-something propelled to stardom whose career seems to have veered off course from stardom like a young genius who didn’t live up to her promise. After all, she named her record label Superego. But that’s too easy an interpretation. Mann likes to play with theses suggestions here. It’s her first new album in four years. She uses elements from her past and shapes it into new material. The record reveals she’s up to her same old tricks. She’s not crazy. She’s back!

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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