Copyright 1993 Musician Magazine
LENGTH: 1406 words
SECTION: Pure Pop
BYLINE: Mac Randall
Aimee Mann's Sweet Revenge
"We've had a joke going recently," Aimee Mann says,"that the new album has three themes: despair, defeat and revenge." The 32-year-old singer/songwriter is speaking over coffee at Boston's Trident Bookstore Cafe on a stormy January night. It's been four years since her band 'Til Tuesday released their last record, nearly eight years since their only sizable hit. In between, there's been planty of reason for despair and defeat- years of legal hassles with record companies, the dissolution of the band, an unbroken plummet into obscurity. But now Mann may finally have a chance at revenge. She's putting the finishing touches on her first solo album, Whatever, which is probably the finest collection of pop songs you'll hear this year.
What' surprising is that such unpleasant subjects as despair, defeat and revenge should translate into exciting, listener-friendly music. Whatever is both a melodious testament to the craft of pop songwriting and an intelligent reflection on the many problems musicians can encounter. Mann's had them all and overcome them all. Yet the fact that her career began with a Top 40 hit may have been the toughest of the lot.
That hit, "Voices Carry," made Boston-based 'Til Tuesday one of 1985's more impressive success stories. But right from the start there were problems. The band disagreed with the choice of "Voices Carry" as a single. "We never thought of it as a real pop song," Mann says now. The song's accompanying video created an image that proved hard to escape from: "Some people may have thought teased hair was the main reason for my success." And when they tried to alter their sound on their next album, Welcome Home, their record company demanded more consistency. "I don't think Epic ever understood what I wanted to do. They wanted me to be more accessible and write with other people, but I had no respect for any of the people they mentioned."
Dissatisfaction with the company reached its height in 1989. "When our third album [Everything's Different Now] was released, we went to radio stations and very few people were playing the record. The people that did said nobody had sent it to them; they'd read somewhere we'd put something out and then went out and found it. I felt neglected. I didn't want to put my heart and soul into making a great record and then have nobody hear it."
Mann decided to take her talents elsewhere, but Epic was reluctant to let go. Negotiations went on for over two years, during which Mann found herself in an uncomfortable artistic position. "It's hard to look for a new label when you're not really off another one but you're not really on it either," she observes. An agreement was finally reached in late 1991 and Aimee was set free. After talking with several labels, she realized that the album she wanted to make should be recorded independently prior to a signing; her manager Patrick Rains put up the money. "If I didn't have a record deal, then I didn't have to deal with anyone who's trying to achieve a commercial purpose. I saw the situation as a great opportunity to experiment."
While recording the new songs that had been accumulating over the last two years, Mann also decided to retire the name 'Til Tuesday and go solo: "On the record we used a couple of different drummers besides Michael [Hausman], and since he's the only original member of 'Til Tuesday, it seemed best to call it a solo record. We did have some success with the old name, and I like being part of a band, but I think it'll be just as interesting to be on my own." As work on the album neared completion, Mann settled on Imago as her new label.
Two old friends, Jon Brion and Buddy Judge, played an important parts in the making of Whatever; both were members in the final version of 'Til Tuesday. Aimee wanted Brion, a multi-instrumentalist and '60s pop freak, to produce the album. "He'd never produced anything before, he's a crazy eccentric musician who likes to work till seven in the morning, and it's very unlikely that any record company would agree to have him produce." All the more reason to use him. Brion and Mann crisscrossed the country, working in several studios on both coasts over the course of many months.
The result is a record several times warmer and more mature than Mann's previous work. The songs' general tendency toward slyly revisionist pop is reinforced by the use of analog tape keyboards like Optigons, Mellotrons and Chamberlains. "The great thing about those instruments, and one of the main concepts of this record, is contrast. Not only between high and low fidelity, but between current sounds and instant history- like a crackling recording of some ancient violin player. Three years ago when we started this, the idea was a lot newer; now we've got a whole Mitchell Froom subculture, but I still love it."
That use of contrast between old and new technology lends a distinctive feel to Whatever's songs, which range in style from the bruising guitar whomp of "I Should've Known" to the delicately ironic string arrangement of "Mr. Harris." Two of the hookiest tracks, "Fifty Year's After the Fair" and "Could've Been Anyone," featuring the unmistakable 12-string work of Roger McGuinn, who contributes some outright Byrds quotes on the latter. Aimee chuckles, "At one point Jon said he was imitating McGuinn so much that maybe we should just call the real thing. But the real thing didn't sound anything like the imitation."
The bitter tone of Whatever's lyrics counters the often exuberant music. Those old companions despair, defeat and revenge are never far away. "Put Me On Top," with lines like "I should be riding on a float in the hit parade," seems to refer to its writer's recent troubles, but Aimee insists the song isn't autobiographical: "It's about a friend of mine in a band called Velvet Crush, who's a champion complainer. He constantly whines, 'When are we gonna get a break? Nobody wants to hear us.' I tend to get depressed rather than complain about things, but after the song was written I thought, 'You know, this could be my story, too.'" On the other hand "I've Had It" is completely personal, a haunting description of a New York showcase gig and a resulting ambivalence about live performing and the music business in general.
You'd think that with the completion of Whatever Mann finally has reason to forget those old insecurities. Her problems may not be over yet, though. Apparently certain Imago promotion people have gotten cold feet about releasing a record with no obvious single prospects. The request came down to write a crossover hit; Mann replied simply that she couldn't. After some consideration, she recorded a cover of Badfinger's "Baby Blue" in an attempt to court more potential listeners but was unhappy with the results. Next she tried out two originals; whether either will be included on the new album is still uncertain, but regardless of that decision, Whatever's release date has been shifted from March to late April, and may be moved even further back.
Hopefully the public won't have to wait much longer to hear this collection of masterful pop music. In any event, difficulties like these certainly help to explain why despair, defeat and revenge have been, and may continue to be, important themes in Mann's songs.
"For me," she says," songwriting is a way to figure it out, whatever it happens to be. That's why songs usually are about problems. Because when you can define a problem clearly, it relieves you of the burden of having to go on feeling it. Once you say, 'Yes, I feel completely like giving up, there's no point,' suddenly that becomes the point. And then you can continue."
SIDEBAR: MANN POWER
On Whatever Aimee Mann used a Martin 000-18 acoustic guitar and a Hofner President hollowbody bass. When coaxed to play electric guitar, she favored either a Gretsch, a Strat or "whatever was around." A Neumann U67 tube microphone captured most of her vocals. Producer Jon Brion liked to plug things into Matchless amplifiers when he wasn't busy playing an Optigon, Mellotron, Chamberlain, Hammond B3, harmonium, celeste tack piano, vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, piccolo, bass harmonica or various toy instruments.
CONTRIBUTED BY: Andrea Weiss, March 5, 1999