Copyright 1999 New Times

New Times Phoenix

December 30, 1999


LENGTH: 2941 words



BYLINE: Robert Wilonsky


Oh, Mann
Three years and one bad record deal later, Aimee Mann returns -- with two wonderful records

By Robert Wilonsky

If Aimee Mann had sold one album for each word written about her, she'd make Alanis Morissette look like the struggling indie artist she probably ought to be. Nobody gets more press for having done so apparently little: one hit a very long time ago ("Voices Carry," back when Mann was the rat-tailed singer in 'Til Tuesday), two albums in six years, and not much else. Well, except she did get screwed by three labels in the span of a decade -- a pretty good track record for those keeping score at home. Of course, it's that last little thing that really made her a press darling, especially during the past year. When the New York Times singles you out, with an enormous photo one week and a magazine feature the next, as the reason major labels are venal, you know you're on to something. Except, of course, a major label.

Peter Sorel

Sweet Magnolia: Aimee Mann's songs served as muse for director Paul Thomas Anderson's latest feature.


And maybe Aimee Mann's is an exception tale -- the story of a gifted singer-songwriter who can't get on the radio unless you put her albums on top of one, a woman who's been so battered by labels she nearly quit the business altogether. Her story has been told and retold with such frequency, it might as well be her whole biography. Delete the references to her first band, the Young Snakes; cross out her tenure at the Berklee School of Music, where she studied bass four hours a day; forget about 'Til Tuesday and two solo records that rank among this decade's finest musical moments. All of it pales next to her seemingly lifelong struggle to find a label that understands her, respects her and, most of all, doesn't get its kicks from ruining her life.

Much of this tale-telling is her own doing: She knows a good hook when she sees one, and journalists are forever hungry for an artist's angry, dissolute words. And the fact is, she'd rather talk about the corrupt business known as show than about her music.

"I'm probably the only artist that will have this viewpoint, but it's obvious to me that a newspaper story or a magazine article about an artist always, always looks for the interesting story, and I understand that," Mann says. "And I don't have anything to say about my music. Sure, you'd want any article to mention your record and how great it is and maybe have a few words to say about it and quote from it, but I don't have anything to say about it. What do I say? I'm really happy about the drum sound we got? Or I think my songwriting is really clever? Or I did this song in the style of Dionne Warwick? I don't know what to say about it."

Spoken like someone who has been the subject of many, many newspaper stories and magazine articles.

But perhaps all that will become a moot point. She will soon have a considerable amount of music in stores to do its own talking. Within the span of a few months, Mann will have released two albums -- one of which is the very disc she rescued from the grimy clutches of Interscope Records, which ignored her only until she would let them no more. The other is, of all things, on a major label.

On December 7, eight of her songs appeared on the Reprise Records soundtrack of Magnolia, the forthcoming film from Boogie Nights writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. In fact, Anderson wrote several scenes using Mann's songs, some a decade old (the kinetic "Momentum") and others brand-new ("Wise Up"), as his templates. A line uttered by one female character, Claudia (played by Melora Waters), is a direct lift from Mann's song "Deathly": "Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?" Anderson took that line from Mann, then built the entire character around it. The film even ends with the entire cast singing "Wise Up," and the video for the song "Save Me" features Mann singing to Tom Cruise, Jason Robards, William Macy and the rest of the cast. No wonder Anderson has often said that what Simon and Garfunkel's songs were to The Graduate, Mann's songs are to Magnolia -- part of the inseparable whole.

In February, pending distribution matters, Mann will finally release, on her own Superego Records label, her third solo record: Bachelor No. 2, from which a handful of Magnolia's songs come. Mann finds it not a little ironic that the soundtrack will be released well before Bachelor No. 2, which was turned in to Geffen Records more than a year ago. A freakin' year ago -- long enough for the label to be devoured by last year's Universal Music Group purchase (Geffen became part of Interscope), long enough for Interscope's executives to do nothing at all with the wonderful album except insist it wasn't ready enough.

"It has been a long time since I had a record out," Mann says. "It's been a really long time." She sort of chuckles, sort of shrugs. Her voice reveals how exhausting a struggle the past two years have been for her. After all, 12 months ago, Mann simply had no idea what her future was -- whether she was a musician, or simply someone killing time 'til her real profession knocked on the door.

Not that Mann is a dilettante, a fake; far from it. Whatever, released in 1993, I'm With Stupid from 1996, and now Bachelor No. 2 (portions of which are available from and Magnolia reveal a songwriter who fits neatly on a time line that begins with Burt Bacharach, runs through Carole King and Randy Newman and Elvis Costello and Difford-Tilbrook, and ends with Ron Sexsmith and Matthew Sweet. She writes lyrics like someone who has never once apologized for anything; to call her a confessional songwriter would mean she has something to concede, and that label does not at all fit her. And Mann crafts melodies that sound as though they existed once, only to have been reduced to cotton-candy echoes until she rescued them. Moments may only remind you of the Kinks, of the Beatles, of some old Dionne Warwick song you heard as a child. But never do those instants sound stolen. Absorbed, perhaps.

Yet hers has not been an easy existence in the music business. She has forever been the butt of the industry's old joke that the better you are, the worse you get treated -- unless you're Richard Thompson, who has been allowed to keep his deal with Capitol despite selling in the negatives. Mann's particular bit of biz hell began 11 years ago, when Epic Records told her 'Til Tuesday's third record for the label, Everything's Different Now, wasn't the singles-laden disc they were expecting . . . or, now, demanding. The Epic brain trust suggested she pair up with Diane Warren, which only made sense, since Mann has often been mistaken for Kim Carnes and Laura Branigan.

Mann, of course, balked, instead co-writing "The Other End (Of the Telescope)," among the most trenchant pop songs of the 1980s, with Elvis Costello. Epic was so taken with the Costello addition, it promoted the album as though it didn't even exist. Still, it would take Mann more than three years to extract herself from her deal with the label. The label had, in essence, silenced her: She could write all she wanted, but no one would be able to hear a single note.

By that point, Mann had convinced herself that her label troubles were her own doing. She insists she wanted the higher-ups at the label to like her, even though she would eventually accrue quite the reputation as someone difficult to work with. She says the more the label's executives rejected her, the harder she tried to win their respect and affection; they wanted the Hit Single, and she swears she tried to deliver it, as though such a thing were even possible.

That, of course, is not the entire truth. Mann would not work with Epic's songwriters or producers, so she preferred to give up rather than give in. That's why Everything's Different Now is a half-brilliant record -- it's too much push and not enough pull, spite standing in for inspiration.

"The last 'Til Tuesday record has moments I wasn't proud of, because I tried to play the game," Mann says. "Then I learned, and I knew better. But it made it a less-than-perfect record, because I tried to please them. And even then, they're not pleased with an Elvis Costello co-write. They don't care about that. That doesn't please them. But I really think the single thing that kept me going through the years of being imprisoned on Epic and having my music absolutely dismissed by them and not be allowed to leave and make a record for someone else, the only thing that kept me going was knowing that Elvis Costello thought I was good. That bolstered my tiny little nugget of self-esteem, which was getting pretty small by then."

After finally extricating herself from Epic, Mann began working on her first solo record. She would finance the disc, write or co-write all the songs, and co-produce the album with former Grays guitarist Jon Brion, among the most sagacious of the current crop of Beatles-damaged pop musicians (he's since worked with, and in many ways defined, the likes of Sam Phillips and Fiona Apple). In Brion, Mann found what she likes to describe as her "shadow self" -- meaning someone who knew how to make tangible all the random sounds she heard in her head but could never translate inside a studio. With Brion, with whom Mann lived for a while, and former 'Til Tuesday drummer Michael Hausman (who would become her manager), Mann made the perfect pop record -- and exacted revenge on those who had screwed her over, from old boyfriends to old labels. Those themes would remain an integral part of her work. (Among the song titles on Bachelor No. 2: "The Fall of the World's Own Optimist," "Calling It Quits" and "Nothing Is Good Enough.")

That Whatever, which was eventually picked up by Imago Records, was so absolutely beautiful -- lush even during its silent moments, the sound of a head hitting a pillow instead of a fist striking a jaw -- only confounded matters more. How could someone so furious, so absolutely corrosive ("I should be riding on a float in the hit parade," she sang, "instead of standing on the curb behind the barricade"), make such utterly exquisite, insinuating music? The music and lyrics almost seemed at odds with each other.

"To me, the music is part of it, and it's not like a mitigating factor," Mann says. "You can't take the lyrics away from the music. The music is meant to create an emotional tone that the lyrics add to. I don't know if I mean it to be scathing or sneaky. Probably what I mean it to be is, I'll say something that's sad but true, and the music is there to let you know that I really do feel like it's kind of sad."

On Whatever and her three subsequent albums, Mann proved she wasn't so different from someone like Randy Newman, who obscures his vitriol behind layers and layers of satin and silk. Newman uses an orchestra to masquerade his intentions; he hides his knife behind the string section, gives his shotgun to the man with the tuba. Mann, on the other hand, layers her records with Mellotrons and chamberlains and harmoniums. Hers are the weapons of children raised on Pet Sounds and '70s Kinks records and Rubber Soul -- and, eventually, friendships with members of XTC, Squeeze, and Suede.

Such is the effect of the very best pop music when it's at once honest and subversive. Mann would prove a most revelatory yet sneaky kind of pop performer. More than once, a critic would listen to the gorgeousness of the music and mistake her songs as those of a woman in love with love, when the truth existed on an entirely different planet.

"Oh, my God, I know," she says. "Well, it's because I'm a girl, so God forbid I could ever write about anything else except the boy who wouldn't love me. I do think a lot of that goes on when you hear a song by a girl and go, 'Oh, she's mad at her boyfriend,' like there's no other possible relationship or dynamic that could exist for a woman. I think a lot of people are still really locked into that. It's still irritating to me. Not that much -- like a bad mosquito night, about like that. Nothing that couldn't be fixed with a little mesh, a little Off, and some slapping."

Despite the album's rock-crit acclaim -- Whatever probably sold as many copies as were sent to critics -- Mann again found herself tangled in the barbed wire of record-label politics. Advance cassettes of her second solo album, I'm With Stupid, were sent to critics in 1995; it was on Imago's release schedule that year, but when the label went bust, Mann's record was stuck in limbo. Eventually, Geffen Records rescued it from the pop compost heap -- maybe she was a free-agent bargain who didn't come with a signing bonus, maybe they actually gave a shit. Soon enough, they wouldn't.

I'm With Stupid one-upped its predecessor: It was a crystalline pop record produced by Brion that featured the likes of Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, Juliana Hatfield, soon-to-be-husband Michael Penn, and Suede's Bernard Butler (he performs on the song "Sugarcoated," which is allegedly about Butler actually being a swell guy and not the prick he was portrayed as when he quit Suede). Every song seemed like a hit, so radio-friendly they practically hugged disc jockeys. Yet it didn't crack radio. Mann ended up getting more press for her contribution to Geffen's Christmas album that year than for her own -- and maybe for the 'Til Tuesday greatest-hits package Sony released in 1996.

During a summer 1996 performance at Los Angeles' John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, Mann quipped to the audience that her brother had figured out why she wasn't successful -- she didn't have a gimmick. "No, I'm not bitter," she told the crowd, and she wasn't even half-joking -- especially not with the amphitheater filled with posters advertising opener Ron Sexsmith and . . . oops . . . Maria McKee.

Mann deserved better than to be one more forgotten record. I'm With Stupid remains a funny, defiant declaration: Mann doesn't write love songs as much as she composes acid kiss-offs to ex-lovers and labels. Her boyfriends are buffoons, idiots, liars, cheats, traitors; she cuts them down and chops them up ("You fucked it up," she declares during the album's very first moments), looks in the rearview mirror only to make sure she doesn't miss you when she backs the car up one more time. She doesn't excuse imperfections ("That's Just What You Are"), doesn't forgive or forget ("Par for the Course"), and if there's a soft spot in her heart, it's there for her alone ("And I warn you now/The velocity I'm gathering").

Nonetheless, three years later, Mann found herself once more caught in the show-biz gears -- until Interscope finally relented, giving her back Bachelor No. 2, no doubt to get her the hell out of their faces. By early this year, Mann had become the symbol of how easy it is to be ground up in the machinations of an industry that treats its finest artists as distractions to be tossed aside when something younger and prettier comes along. Her travails with Interscope Records alone have become the stuff of mythic madness: Rare is the musician who garners 5,000 words in the New York Times Magazine, but Mann managed such a feat during the summer, filling page after page with her vitriol.

A former Geffen Records executive who also has left the label considers the article something of an embarrassment. He insists Mann has spent far too much time laboring over a tale so often told in the music business that it has become the stuff of sad clich*.

"God, why can't she stop talking about why labels are no damned good?" he wonders. "People who buy records don't care about that stuff -- it's so mundane, so boring, so meaningless. She's an amazingly talented musician. Why can't she talk about that?"

Mann, for her part, loved the Times piece. If nothing else, after years of railing against her various labels -- Epic, Imago, Geffen -- she finds she can do so now without fear of retribution. She can say whatever she wants in interviews without her manager coming down on her after talking to the press. She's free to bad-mouth anyone she wants, and she does so frequently. There's nothing quite like the artist with nothing left to lose.

"Before, you're supposed to lie and put a spin on it and pretend you're happy with the situation, when you feel like you're really being demeaned all the time," she says. "It's actually kind of fun. Interestingly enough, this is the one time I'm not bitter." She laughs. "I don't have a grudge. I'm totally happy. Let bygones be bygones, God bless everyone. Let's move on. I have no shred of anger left for those people anymore. I am out of the bad marriage."