Copyright 1993 Globe Newspaper Company
The Boston Globe
May 28, 1993, Friday, City Edition
SECTION: ARTS & FILM; Pg. 53
LENGTH: 1060 words
HEADLINE: AIMEE MANN; BACK AND ROCKIN';
After three years, there's no need to ask if she's got a new album;
THE MUSIC SECTION
BYLINE: By Steve Morse, Globe Staff
Aimee Mann has finally been set free. She no longer has to hang her head around town, fielding questions about what happened to her career and where's her next record. After a long, three-year wait in which her hit group 'Til Tuesday fell by the wayside, Mann has fought back with a solo disc that's returned her to the charts and renewed her confidence.
"The record seems to be doing really well - and my record company is happy. That's a nice change," says the leather-jacketed Mann, lunching on an omelette this week at Rosie's restaurant in Brookline.
Entitled "Whatever" (the "catchphrase of the '90s," she says), the album burst into Boston's Top 20 right out of the blocks. Filled with "adult" alternative rock, cut with sonic hints of the Byrds, Beatles and Bangles, it's been propelled by the lead single, "I Should've Known" - a tuneful, world-weary track that subtly suggests the business troubles Mann has faced.
"It was tedious," she says of her long limbo. "In 'Til Tuesday, it had gotten to the point that just listening to music reminded me of the damn business and I couldn't do it anymore. . . . It was hard because you thought that just around the corner, your problems would be solved and the business thing would start up again. Then you realized you gave it three years. It was pathetic."
Although 'Til Tuesday had two Top 40 hits in the mid-'80s ("Voices Carry" and "What About Love"), they didn't have a successful followup. Their label, Epic Records, soon lost interest. One year, Mann was a star on the MTV Music Awards, only to feel like a blip on a corporate radar screen the next.
"Epic's expectations were so high because all they dealt with were mega-artists," she says. "If you didn't immediately sell 100,000 records in one week, then you'd be dropped or your record would be over.
"Even the simplest things you would take for granted that a record company would do, they didn't do," she adds, recalling 'Til Tuesday's last record, "Everything's Different Now," which came out three years ago. "Nobody heard it. . . . They didn't even send it out to radio stations and to people who would do something with it. I could have done a better job out of my own home with some stamps."
Mann then tried to leave the label. "They weren't interested in me, but they wouldn't let go, either; it was obnoxious," she says. Mann eventually found herself with no label before newcomer Imago Records picked her up and the rest, hopefully, is one of the comeback stories of the year.
What's remarkable is that Mann came back with as strong a record as "Whatever," which belies its ho-hum title with inspired melodies, survivalist lyrics and progressive pop-rock arrangements.
"The positive part of the weird limbo I was in, was that musically, nobody was trying to steer me in a commercial way," she says. "So you could concentrate on making music that amuses you. You don't have to worry about the finished product. You don't even worry about it being a product. So you end up making the kind of record that you're going to listen to yourself."
Mann, who won this year's Boston Music Award for best female rock singer, even though her new record wasn't released, also lucked out by teaming with local, rising-star producer, Jon Brion. She met him through Mike Dinneen of the local Q Division Studios; and the musical chemistry was obvious.
"Jon is one of those guys who listens to music religiously," she says. "He puts a chair right in front of the speakers and concentrates for hours and hours at a time. Jon started playing a lot of old stuff that was really amazing, like the Kinks, Zombies and George Harrison. It was very melodic, and that influenced the record."
Brion has no prior hot-shot reputation, but he and Mann became kindred souls in making music that unites different elements, much as the Beatles did. Thus, a toy piano and marimba might playfully offset a serious melody line. The song, "Mr. Harris," even has a baroque quality reminiscent of the Beatles.
"I like the idea of contrasting sounds, like taking instruments that are more weighty, then adding a toy piano or some other humorous thing," she says. "Or sounds that are very modern contrasted with taped keyboards that are very old." (One being a mellotron, once used by the Moody Blues.)
"I like the Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper' because it has that contrasty thing," Mann continues. "There's a lot of dancehall influences in their writing, that 'When I'm Sixty-Four' shuffle kind of thing. And they have electric guitars contrasted with strings or horns. Or rock music with classical piccolo and trumpet, as in 'Penny Lane.' To me, that was always interesting because it was different things abutting one another."
Vocally, Mann has also come a long way from the early '80s when she sang in the Boston band Young Snakes. "That was the period when I tried to sound like Nina Hagen," says Mann. "She was an East German opera singer who took acid 500 times and just completely lost her mind. It was like an East German's interpretation of punk/new wave. The idea of mixing punk with operatic singing, I thought, was amazing."
Today, Mann has a much prettier-sounding voice. "My voice is conversational. That's my goal - to talk on pitch," she says.
On the new album, she talk/sings about breakups, about life being a vale of tears, about finding strength even though "that uphill climb is never through." She kills you softly, but you can't stop listening.
"It feels like I'm starting over. I'm not even remotely the same person I was. Fortunately, I'm much better educated about the business, so there's a lot of problems I can avoid. Most importantly, I've lost the belief that becoming rich and famous is anything to want. I just don't think it is," says Mann, who hopes to tour soon under her own name, but also play more dates with a local side group, Desk, led by Boston friend Keith Grady.
"Desk is like Fleetwood Mac meets They Might Be Giants played by 5-year-olds," says Mann, proving that she still has a sense of humor.
Nor has she ever been tempted to move out of Boston. "Where would I have gone? To New York or Los Angeles? Those places are awful. I've lived a little while in New York and certainly spent enough time in L.A. to know I'd never want to live there. I want to stay where my friends are. And that's Boston."