Sunday, October 23, 2011

I'm With Aimee

Aimee Mann--"4th Of July" (mp3)
Ted Leo--"Freeway (live Aimee Mann cover)" (mp3)

Everyone has their favorite female rocker. Mine is Aimee Mann. Has been for some time. Continues to be.

There's probably a productive sidebar discussion about why we would even need to distinguish the female of the rock species, but, let's face it, comparatively, there just aren't that many women who really rock. And even some of those are women who rock occasionally or who have some uptempo songs.

I mean, Patti Griffin's "Blue Skies" is one of my favorite rock songs, but Patti is a folksinger, not a rocker. Emmy Lou Harris, especially live with Buddy Miller, can really kick it up a notch, or can crack her voice superbly over Daniel Lanios-produced soundscapes, but she sings country, with country sensibilities. I loved Linda Ronstadt's "How Do I Make You" back in the early 80's when she tried to embrace the punk ethic, but that was a convention for one album. I liked Belly, but I've lost track. I loved the Pretenders for about 3 1/2 albums. I liked the Fiery Furnaces when I saw them live a couple of years ago. But the woman who fronts a rock band that is her band that plays her songs, how many of those are still out there?

More likely, Aimee Mann is the female rocker. Not that you're going to bang your head against a wall listening to her. Because, first and foremost, you can't help but actually listen to her and her wonderfully-crafted songs. And she's got a bit of vaudeville, a bit of folkster, a bit of pure songwriter in her. But, primarily, she is a rocker. Here's why she does it for me:

1. Aimee Mann has a highly-developed sense of irony. She will play with every expectation you have, even within the context of a single song. She is well-read, connected, fearless. Who else crafts a song that compares a relationship to the Frankenstein monster? Who else turns a holiday like "4th of July" into a lament and an indictment of a lover who has done her wrong? Who else compares herself to a superball? Who else captures the graphic novel Ghost World in a song? Who else starts a song "You got a lot of money/But you can't afford the Freeway"? and finds a way to justify the lyric with the song?

2. Aimee Mann sings "fuck" and its variations more beautifully than anyone else. She tosses off "fuck" like other songwriters use the word "love." But not gratuitiously; instead, she uses it to cement her jaundiced view of the world and of love. Who else starts off a CD with lines like these:
You fucked it up
You should have quit
'Till circumstances had changed a bit

You fucked it up
You jumped the gun
I swore you off, but you climbed back on

Her last song on the same CD uses the "F-word" in a completely different way, perhaps to even greater effect, as she both celebrates and admonishes the naive:

All you want to do is something good
So get ready to be ridiculed and misunderstood
'Cause don't you know that you're a fucking freak in this world
In which everybody's willing to choose swine over pearls

A listener gets the sense that Aimee Mann does not worry about rules and conventions, that she is one of those very few artists who isn't thinking about how the song will sound on the radio. She is thinking about how the song will sound. And what it will mean. And what are the perfect words to convey that.

3. Aimee loves electic guitar. Her CDs are full of great guitar solos and great guitar sounds. Perhaps there is no band, no bandleader, with the obvious exception of Steely Dan's front men or Jimmy Page, who knows how to use guitar in the context of a song as well. Mann's songs are rife with stunning electric guitar work, but always in the service of the song. The simple reality of rock is that, in 90% of the situations, an electric guitar is the best way to forward a song through a melodic break. Mann knows this. Her sidemen and guest artists add superb touches to her songs.

I first connected with Aimee Mann when her CD, I'm With Stupid, came out. Her near-perfect, hard-to-get-released sophomore solo CD has been one of the most played CDs that I have every owned. A richly-layered songset, it wows you with every song, the word play, the creative melodies, the way themes musical and lyrical return in songs and in between songs, and, most of all, her controlled, nasal singing that is the best vehicle for her beautiful bitterness.

And, though we haven't talked about it specifically, what about her as a songwriter? Over the last 20 years, I'd say she is easily one of the top 5 songwriters in the business. In the rock world, at least, she has not female equal, few male equals. Though it must have felt like a slap in the face to Fiona Apple (who was dating director Paul Anderson at the time), it's not difficult to figure out why Anderson decided to feature Mann's songs almost exclusively in his film, Magnolia. She straddles the fence between intimate, personal statements and universal themes.

If she ever put out a "greatest hits" complilation, not that she has the commercial acceptance to do so, her fans would probably clamor for a 4-CD set. A single set of 12-15 songs could in no way capture her range; it would be a mere cherry pick of her best stuff.

While I don't claim to love every single song that she has ever written, there is no doubt that all of them are extremely well-crafted, that she doesn't toss a few throwaway songs onto a CD. Nope, her stuff is top-notch top to bottom. All of it serves the vision. And the great songs number in the dozens.

One of the great pleasures of Rocktober for me, maybe not for you, is that it forces me to zero in on someone like Aimee Mann, to spend a night listening to her and writing about her, and to realize in that time a greatness that I had probably taken for granted in all those years of adding song after song after song of hers to my understanding of who she is. All artists have peaks. Aimee Mann's string of CDs from Whatever to I'm With Stupid to Batchelorette #2 (and the Magnolia soundtrack) to Lost In Space marks one of the great creative periods of American songwriting that spans the two centuries most of us know. Maybe Steve Earle during those years, maybe Ryan Adams. No one else. And her newer stuff, in some ways even more ambitious, continues to delight, as well.


cinderkeys said...

The "Wise Up" montage was one of the best parts of Magnolia, both for the song and for a reason I won't spoil just in case anyone reading hasn't seen it and wants to.

Billy said...

Totally agree w/Cinder re: Magnolia.

She's always been hovering on the outer aura of my musical knowledge, but I've never gone beyond a song here, a song there. I hereby vow to give Ms. Mann a more intentional tryout in the coming month. Maybe a small eMusic investment. Good post.

stowstepp said...

I have several friends who feel exactly the same way as you Bob, but I can't listen to her because "her controlled, nasal singing" strikes a nerve in me that I can't get past. Perhaps it is my own personal flaw (one of many?), but the voice of the singer has always been a critical component to my attachment to music. It's why I love Lori McKenna, Eddie from Ohio, old Genesis, The Police, REM, etc., and have no patience for many of the generic bands of today with wimpy, everyday bland singers. Damn, I sound like a grumpy old man...

John said...

Bob, love this post and thanks for reminding me that I need to revisit her. Saw her at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle a few years ago and remember thinking about her songwriting craft the way you articulated it, but not nearly so insightfully.

Billy said...

@stowstepp - I'm worried that you might be some manifestation of a second personality in my own body or something. My vow to give her a chance should have said "in spite of the fact I just can't seem to get past that voice..."

Bob said...

I've found that, over time, every idiosyncratic voice that I didn't like for its idiosyncracies I have ended up liking/loving for those same idiosyncracies. Of course, if you cut your teeth on Dylan, Young, and Waits, the voice is never a deal breaker. For Aimee Mann, the only place where her voice/approach doesn't work for me is on her Christmas CD. Can barely listen to it.

Oddly, it's the person who sings (or plays) too well that annoys me.

troutking said...

Never listened to her but will definitely give her a chance after reading this post. Having seen Dylan 30 plus times in the last decade, I don't think her voice is going to be an issue...

Barely Awake In Frog Pajamas said...

A college buddy and I devoured all of the 'Til Tuesday stuff and, then, Aimee went silent for a few years.

Knowing that I was seeking out a gig in the music industry, he jokingly appealed to me to find out what she was up to.

To both of our surprise, I met a musician who had been working with Aimee. My buddy was duly impressed when I sent him a dozen or so demos, most of which would end up on her solo debut a few years later.

It's good to know that a lot of other folks appreciate her wonderful catalog.

stowstepp said...

@Billy - indeed (L-ingOL)

@Bob - I totally get that, but for some reason I couldn't break through on Aimee. Try listening to Ryan Montbleau and tell me his voice isn't annoying. But I really dig his stuff. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

Awesome interview on the Adam Carolla Podcast today!! Check it out. Especially if you're a big fan!