Copyright 1993 The Washington Post  
The Washington Post

May 19, 1993, Wednesday, Final Edition


LENGTH: 1021 words

HEADLINE: Recordings;
Pursuit of a New Sound

SERIES: Occasional

BYLINE: Geoffrey Himes, Special to The Washington Post

   Usually, the best thing that can happen to a band is a hit single off its first album. For Aimee Mann and the Pursuit of Happiness, however, it turned out to be the worst thing.

Mann's former band, the Boston quartet 'Til Tuesday, scored a Top 10 pop hit with the title tune on its 1985 debut album, "Voices Carry." It was a synth-washed mood piece that owed much of its success to Mann's spiky platinum-blond hair in the accompanying video. When Mann tried to move to more of a melodic-pop, guitar-hook sound and less of a punk goddess image, she got all sorts of resistance from Epic Records.

The Pursuit of Happiness, the Toronto quintet that plays the 9:30 club tomorrow, had a similar experience. Its 1986 indie single "I'm an Adult Now" anchored its 1988 debut album, "Love Junk," and became an FM radio hit. It was a hard-rock novelty song with very funny lyrics about singer Moe Berg realizing with great dismay that he's no longer a kid. When Berg's band tried to pursue a more hard-pop sound, the group had a falling out with Chrysalis Records.

So Mann and Berg now find themselves on new labels, trying to redefine themselves. Mann's first solo album, "Whatever" (Imago), is her first recording in four years. Financed by her manager, it was made under Mann's complete control (right down to the non-glamorous photos with her hair hanging in her face) before it was auctioned off to bidding labels. The Pursuit of Happiness's third album, "The Downward Road" (Mercury), is the band's first release in three years. It boasts a stronger, fuller guitar sound that makes the group less dependent on Berg's still witty lyrics.

Aimee Mann

For those listeners waiting for a worthy sequel to the Pretenders' triumphant 1984 album "Learning to Crawl," Mann's "Whatever" comes closer to the mark than anything Chrissie Hynde has done in the ensuing years. Like Hynde, Mann has a great rock-and-roll voice, melodic enough to confess her needs and tough enough to demand respect. Mann isn't as strong a lyricist as Hynde, but she's an even better composer, filling "Whatever" with gorgeous ballad melodies, catchy guitar riffs and expansive harmonies.

Keyboardist Jon Brion, guitarist Buddy Judge and percussionist Michael Hausman, Mann's band mates in the final edition of 'Til Tuesday, all contribute to the album, but they play as a quartet on only four of the 13 tracks. Brion has the greatest role as producer, co-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist; he helps Mann realize her vision of a mid-'60s Beatles-Byrds pop sound, full of soaring vocal harmonies, punchy rhythms and jangly guitars. Brion even brings the Byrds' Roger McGuinn on board for some guitar quotations.

Mann's lyrics are filled with bitter disappointment. "I Should've Known," she sings on the first single, that a relationship was doomed long before it fell apart. She dismisses an ex-lover by telling him he "Could've Been Anyone"; she dares him to "Say Anything" different. She compares the series of minor mistakes we all make through life to "Jacob Marley's Chain" from Dickens's "A Christmas Carol."

Her bleakest assessments of love affairs gone wrong, however, are countered by a resilient, pleasureful music. Even when she's calling her ex a "Stupid Thing," her lilting high melody and bell-like vocal imply an optimism that romance could, even should, turn out better. On the Pretenderesque "I Should've Known," the buoyant girl-group harmonies on the chorus indicate that she is less haunted by the past than looking forward to the future. The glorious guitar harmonies and majestic hook of the Byrds tribute "Could've Been Anyone" transform the title line from a kiss-off to an absolution.

Mann's melodies are so attractive, always turning the corner into new avenues, that they don't even need Brion's grand guitar arrangements to work -- the acoustic-guitar version of "Jacob Marley's Chain" and the chamber-music setting of "Mr. Harris" succeed marvelously. Mann can't always find the right lyric for her feelings (as she confesses on "I Know There's a Word"), but she always finds the right harmony. (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8151.)