Copyright 1993 Billboard Publications, Inc.

March 20, 1993


LENGTH: 1115 words


BYLINE: by Timothy White

   To speak from the heart requires courage, but to sing from the heart can take something more valiant: a desire to share one's deepest vulnerabilities.

"Telling what you feel, trying to talk about what's important to you, does not make you weaker," says blonde, winsome Aimee Mann with a calm smile, by way of discussing "Whatever," her first solo album (on Imago/BMG, due May 11). "That's the big secret that nobody seems to get. I think the role of artists and songwriters is to say, 'Maybe you can't do this, but I'll do it for you.' In other words, I'll try to sing, out loud, the truth of what you and I both feel. I have nothing but disdain for people who spend a lot of energy trying to protect their emotions."

And Mann's many fans have nothing but respect for the singer/songwriter's forceful output since 1985, which appeared on three albums ("Voices carry," "Welcome Home," "Everything's Different Now") by the Boston-based group 'Til Tuesday, and is now displayed on her own free-standing debut. One of her staunchest admirers is Elvis Costello (with whom she wrote the wistful "The Other End [Of The Telescope]" on "Everything's Different Now"), who has pronounced her among the foremost songsmiths in popular music today. She's also an intensely expressive vocalist, her tangy, insistent phrasing and the pressing tone of her lyric lines converting each silvery melody line from a covert notion into a kindred necessity.

And while Mann is still best known as the embodiment of "Voices Carry," the top-10 hit 'Til Tuesday enjoyed in the spring of '85, her reputation in critical and cult circles rests on the unshakable spell of subsequent efforts like "Coming Up Close" and "Rip In Heaven," each a searching oath of romantic self-scrutiny that is unstinting in its seasoned frankness.

What protects Mann's music from the traps of pop self-pity or trifling bathos are its impertinent wit and coolly suggestive structure, the player and arranger taking over from the writer to insert devious and sly instrumental touches to sharpen her messages. A perfect example of this able balance occurs at regular intervals throughout the "Whatever" album, whose parallel themes are the rewarding difficulties of self-redemption (on first single "I should've Known," "Put Me On Top," "Way Back When") and the surface temptations of self-defeat ("I've Had It," "Could've Been Anyone," "Jacob Marley's Chain.")

Theme-wise, are these tracks lovelorn exercises, poison-pen letters, rapt reaffirmations, or caustic manifestos? Stylistically, are they intricate pop ballads, wrenching rock confessions, sly folk-punk outbursts?

Turns out they're all of the above and more, performed with a Beatles-esque disregard for the improprieties of mixing irate power chords, folkish strumming, sighing French horns, and a snare drum that sounds like it's ringing from the recreation room of a mental ward. Her enticing singing winds its way through the flawless counterpoint like a cunning waif, whispering and prodding and rising in a trenchant warble that leaves no insight unspoken.

"Songwriting can take on any amount of separate lives according to the treatments you give it," says Mann, "but it should never be a dodge or a disguise for the central issue of telling the truth. Even pity and compassion and gratitude, although very noble impulses in themselves, can be very destructive in too great amounts because they become narcissistic, a way to cover up inadequacies or fears."

Professionally, the facts Mann chose not to avoid on "Whatever" were the personal regret and discouragement she felt after reaching a commercial and artistic impasse with former label Epic following the release in 1988 of "Everything's Different Now" (her then-finest and least-known album). After years in and out of lawyers' offices and showcase clubs -- grappling with the possibility that her career was permanently crippled -- she reached a diplomatic agreement and a new beginning. Deciding to strike out on her own, she found new manager Patrick Rains willing to put up the money for her to make "Whatever" entirely under her own flag -- right down to its cover art -- and then presented the finished product to Imago. While risky, it was a strategy that turned Mann from a virtual lost soul into one of the year's most dramatic new faces.

But it also parallels the struggles and sorrows of her own background, including the part about being "lost."

"My parents split up when I was about 3 years old," she explains. "And my mother and her new man, he concocted this plan to kidnap my brother and I and go off to Europe with his kids from a previuos marriage. They couldn't get my brother, but I went with them. My father, an advertising executive, was searching for me with private detectives for a year! That's probably why I don't like to travel," she notes, laughing.

"I was returned to my father and the divorce was made final, but then I didn't see my mother again until 15 years later."

At this point, Mann was 18 and had decided to leave her home in Richmond, Va., to attend the Berklee School of Music in Boston. In between stints baking croissants at an Au Bon Pain shop in the Prudential Center and working at the counters of Strawberries and Newbury Comics record shops, she grew from a shy member of the Yojng Snakes to the leader of the successful if beleaguered 'Til Tuesday.

In the intervening years, Aimee, now 32, has resumed contact with her mom ("She's very soft-spoken and intelligent, with a somewhat introverted, analytical thing I recognize in myself; she now works finding foster homes for disturbed children"), and taken control of her own destiny.

"The best thing that anyone can ever do -- and that I certainly did -- is make a choice not to be afraid anymore. I was a very fearful person, and leaving Richmond to go to the big city of Boston by myself for music school when I knew nothing but four Neil Young chords on an acoustic guitar -- that completely changed my life.

"This is embarassing to admit, but I find it useful in times of stress to imagine I'm talking to the most perfect, loving, understanding person I can envision, and say, 'Well, what should I do in this situation? I'm completely upset.' I then have that ideal person talk to me and say, 'It's not really this that you're upset about. It's because it reminds you of this other thing.'

"In short, I know the right thing to do, but I had to learn to give myself those answers. The realization that I could be so objective about myself is what's made me a good songwriter."

And it's what makes Aimee Mann's "Whatever" such a great achievement.

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