HEADLINE: Aimee Mann: Is Anything Good Enough?
BYLINE: By Mark Block
Bachelor No.2/Superego Records SE2002
Magnolia/Reprise 9 47583-2
CHARACTERS: Thomas Paul Anderson, director of the acclaimed Boogie Nights, is struggling with ideas for his next screenplay. Aimee Mann, former lead vocalist of the rock group 'Til Tuesday, is seemingly at the end of her recording career. Mann's manager just hit her with a communique from Geffen Records--they'll drop her if the next album isn't a hit. She's been performing lately with husband Michael Penn (who had written songs for Boogie Nights) at the LA club Largo. Another regular at Largo is Anderson's girlfriend Fiona Apple. Anderson and Mann have struck up a friendship / mutual admiration society.
FADE IN: INTERIOR LIVING ROOM. Mann is playing snippets of new songs. Anderson listens intently. She sways awkwardly to an inner rhythm and sings: "Now that I've met you / would you object to / never seeing each other again / 'cause I can't afford to / climb aboard you / no one's got that much ego to / spend." SLOW FADE TO BLACK
CUT TO: PRESS CONFERENCE. Following the premier of Magnolia, Anderson is speaking to reporters: "In my original screenplay, Claudia says, 'Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing me again?' I must come clean. I did not write that line. Aimee Mann wrote that line as the opening of her song, 'Deathly,' and I wrote the screenplay backwards from that line. Aimee Mann is to Magnolia what Simon and Garfunkel are to The Graduate."
CUT TO: STAGE OF Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium. Aimee Mann sways awkwardly to the rhythm as she performs her Oscar-nominated song "Save Me" from Magnolia. The U.S. TV audience is 87 million and she's feeling a little nervous: "You look like / a perfect fit / a girl in need / of a tourniquet / but can you save me? / come on and save me."
Does the audience save her? Is it a happy ending? That's up to us, but the plot almost never got off the ground. Mann's manager, Michael Hausman (ex-'Til Tuesday drummer, ex-Mann boyfriend) was actually too optimistic about Geffen Records. The new album, a 13-song collection that includes three cuts from Magnolia, was killed before it even had a chance to fail. Head honcho Jimmy Iovine sent her back to the drawing board after listening to the final mixes. His comment: "Aimee doesn't expect us to put this record out as it is, does she?"
The release of Magnolia finally allowed seven of Mann's new songs to make it to CD. (The soundtrack also includes her cover of the Nilsson / Three Dog Night standard "One" and an instrumental version of "Nothing Is Good Enough;" filling out the CD are two oldies from Supertramp, "Goodbye Stranger" and "Logical Song," an R&B hit circa 1993, "Dreams, by Gabrielle, and a classical orchestration of a theme from the movie.) Mann was forced to buy the rights to the master tapes from Iovine & company (a low six-figure sum, reportedly) in order to release Bachelor No. 2. It could have been worse: Other artists purged from the label were turned down flat when they tried to buy their recordings back.
The Sisyphean trials of Mann to get these songs released has been well documented, particularly by Jonathan Van Meter of the New York Times Magazine, who followed her for months during the darkest days of her labors. When A&R man Jim Barber told Hausman that he wasn't hearing a single in the new batch of songs, Mann responded with "Nothing Is Good Enough," a song either about a toxic relationship or a thoughtlessly poisonous record company executive: "Nothing is good enough / for people like you / who have to have someone / take the fall / and something to sabotage / determined to lose it all." Barber told the reporter that he took offense, and that he had actually been very helpful and specific in his criticisms. "I said to her: 'Aimee, this is why your choruses aren't working. This is the kind of chorus you should write.' I made her a tape once of songs that I think have good choruses." As a dialog scene in our Aimee Mann screenplay, this may not have quite the delicious irony of that bit in Amadeus where the King tells Mozart, "Too many notes," but it's close.
Mann didn't ever get the choruses right enough, so now she has the dubious distinction of having never released a solo album on the label that recorded it. Three albums in eight years: Whatever, recorded by Giant before it went belly up, then released by Imago; I'm With Stupid, recorded by Imago before it shriveled and died, eventually released by Geffen; Bachelor No. 2, recorded for Interscope after it ingested Geffen in a frenzied, alcohol-fueled (Seagram's, of course) consolidation when parent company Universal bought Polygram, ultimately released by Mann's "vanity" label, SuperEgo. Couldn't be simpler.
Our unfinished screenplay, which must include flashbacks to the reported kidnapping at age four by her estranged mother, ends with Aimee Mann critically praised, admired by fellow performers, often called one of the best songwriters of her generation, reduced to putting out essentially a vanity CD. Actually reduced isn't the right word, because Bachelor No. 2 is both a triumph artistically and a lesson in how to succeed in business when the business you're in is brain dead. The album is available from her website, aimeemann.com, and if you buy only one thing on the Internet this year, it should be this album. (The second thing would be an extra copy as a gift, with maybe an Aimee Mann t-shirt thrown in. And if you don't already have the Magnolia soundtrack, click "Buy" while you're on the website; let Mann make a few extra bucks off it.)
How good is this new work from Aimee Mann? Mann has always been an interesting talent, but now she's a MONSTER (in the nicest sense of the word). I'm not the only critic to see greatness in Mann. David Thigpen wrote in Time magazine that Mann's 1996 album I'm With Stupid was one of the "catchiest pop albums of the year, brimming with poised, three-minute mini-masterpieces....Mann has the same skill that great tunesmiths like McCartney and Neil Young have: the knack for writing simple, beautiful, instantly engaging songs." A perceptive comment, debatable then, confirmed absolutely now by Magnolia and Bachelor No. 2. A review on sonicnet.com by Bud Scoppa follows up on the McCartney connection, and on the scope of Mann's achievement: "On the evidence of her work here, one would have to say there really isn't any pop-rock composer writing more sophisticated material these days than Aimee Mann. Always an inspired melodist, she's now assimilated Burt Bacharach as well as Lennon-McCartney."
I'll go so far as to say that the only thing separating Mann's new songs from, say, "Norwegian Wood," "Girl," or "In My Life" on Rubber Soul (aside from Mann's more mature lyrics) is a George Martin production. Not that Mann would accept the limitations of a producer's style, even George Martin's. Mann doesn't try to imitate the Beatles or any of her myriad UK influences (Zombies, Elvis Costello, Squeeze, XTC) so much as imply them. The influences insinuate themselves in the songs, adding subtle texture without becoming "Hey there!" distractions. (Hey, there's a George Harrison riff; hey, there's a Karen Carpenter inflection; hey, there's a Beach Boys harmony.) The impulse to combine a sharp, pared down, avant garde austerity with the best of schmaltz was with Mann from early in her career; it's who she is, not a schtick she's affected.
In a 1984 Boston Globe interview, at a time when Mann wore spiky hair and entered "Battle of the Bands" punk-rock contests to get noticed, she praised Devo and the Talking Heads, professed her love for Elvis Costello, then went on to say that what she really enjoyed listening to was Frank Sinatra, the Carpenters, and Burt Bacharach. This at a time when the Carpenters were considered the archetypes of treacle, Frank Sinatra was the last of the Neanderthals, and Burt Bacharach hadn't been rediscovered by Austin Powers.
Bachelor No. 2 is a fairly minimalist, seemingly low-budget production, but that's not to say Mann didn't get what she wanted. Van Meter describes Mann's firm obsessiveness during the mixing of "Nothing Is Good Enough:" "Mann is unhappy. She fears that the piano is too pretty, too 'ballady,' and too much like another song on the album. 'It's not the Moody Blues '70s flavor I was looking for.' A decision is made to bring in a different drummer, and Mann tells the piano player [Benmont Tench, a Tom Petty stalwart, is credited in the liner notes] to play his part as if he were 'a drunken clown.' Hausman suggests a 'John Lennon, immature piano player' approach." Listening to the song now, I hear the Moody Blues and Lennon influences, but I never would have picked them out if I hadn't read the Sunday Times article.
And by the way, the song's waltz rhythm does sound too much like track #5, "Satellite," even with a different drummer and keyboard player. One could in fact criticized Bachelor No. 2 for being overall too ballady, too laid back. "Ghost World," for instance, has the makings of a classic teen-angst anthem ("I'm bailing this town, or / tearing it down, or / probably more / like hanging around"), but instead of upping the energy with soaring electric guitars, Mann adds poignancy and beauty to the arrangement with synth strings and Carpenters-style harmonies. And yet the choices feel felicitous, of a piece; Mann sets a tone and doesn't spoil it. Issues of monotony are moot when you have tunes this contagious.
The production quality from an audiophile standpoint is acceptable, though not something you'd use to show off your system. It's one of the few CDs I have that doesn't sound very promising on the car and office stereo, but actually gets much better on my high-end system. In other words, there are no nasties, so a serious listen on a very analytical stereo will not go unrewarded. By the way, the three songs that appear on both albums sound better-cleaner and crisper-on Bachelor No. 2, which was mastered by Bob Clearmountain. Don't expect audiophile magic, but be prepared to enjoy the production nuances. And while you're listening, take out the liner notes and read the lyrics.
Often pop lyrics look either banal or hopelessly obscure when viewed through the clarifying objectivity of reading glasses. Black on white doesn't do favors to something meant to be felt in musical colors. Mann's lyrics are an exception. The wordplay is fun, for sure, but more important is the fact that her thoughts connect to deep wells of empathy, and her metaphors illuminate rather than obfuscate. I started to look through the songs to find a lyric that illustrates this point, and I stopped at the first new song from Magnolia, "Momentum." A second glance through both albums suggests that almost any song here could serve just as well, but I'll stick with my initial choice: "And I know life is getting shorter / I can't bring myself to set the scene / Even when it's approaching torture / I've got my routine / But I can't confront the doubts I have / I can't admit that maybe the past was bad / And so, for the sake of momentum / I'm condemning the future to death so it can match the past." One could easily write a bestselling self-help book (or two or three) based on this song, and also a political tome about the irrationality of status-quo oriented, right-wing conservatism; the "Momentum Diet" book will follow-yes, you too can be as skinny as Aimee Mann.
Director Anderson, in the liner notes to Magnolia, remarks that her lyrics are so simple and direct that you may be mistaken in thinking you've thought of them yourself but neglected to write them down. "Like any great writer, she has the ability to articulate. She is the great articulator of the biggest things we think about." Let's see, that would be: love and loss ("Susan"); friendship and isolation ("It Takes All Kinds"); the transparency and profound complexity of human motives ("You Do"); life and death ("Just Like Anyone," about not recognizing Jeff Buckley's cry for help prior to his suicide); and, most importantly, why we act like idiots most of the time (every song she writes).
But if she's so damn talented, so damn perceptive, so damn good, why do record execs think she so uncommercial? Jimmy Iovine can't be that dumb, can he? He did engineer Born to Run; he did produce hits for Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks. There's no easy answer; all one can say is that being able to help Stevie Nicks leave Fleetwood Mac doesn't qualify him to judge Aimee Mann. And further, if your biggest claim to fame lately is taking Death Row rappers and Marilyn Manson under your broad wings, then issues of taste may be a factor.
The awful irony is that the record company did have potential hits here. "Save Me" was nominated for an Academy Award. Although it didn't win, many critics (Roger Ebert and Peter Bogdonovich, for instance) picked it as clearly the best song among the nominees--that is, the song they'd continue to enjoy outside the movie theater. At my office, the Magnolia soundtrack is a favorite with everyone from young assistants to aging boomers like myself. Mann has a right to be bitter about how badly Iovine messed up: "A single is a record company's job: to pick out a song and make sure people hear it." Instead, lnterscope strung her along, ignored phone calls, then killed the album at a time when Mann had a Lilith Fair tour coming up and could have promoted it. I guarantee you Madonna could have taken any of a dozen songs here and turned them into commercial singles simply by dubbing in her own lead vocal and putting the patented Madonna "hit factory" machine into gear.
Here's a "what if" thought experiment. Imagine there's no Beatles in 1963. The Merseybeat British Invasion happens without them. John, Paul, George and Ringo hook up a few years later, say 1967, and record Sgt. Pepper's. What would a record company with today's risk-averse attitude have done with it? "You don't expect us to release this?" would be one of the more kind comments, along with "listen to the Monkees, ape that sound, and come back with something the kids will buy."
Luckily for us, CDs are simple to manufacture, and the Web makes them easier to distribute. Gail Marowitz, V.P. of creative services at Sony Music and a good friend of Mann's, claims that "if Aimee sold 70,000 records independently, she would be making more money than if she sold 300,000 on a major label. . . . Ultimately, it's a very good thing." That being the case, look for more and more artists to get out from under oppressive contracts. Neil Strauss of the New York Times has written that record companies now "subtract 15 to 25 percent of the royalty rate of 12 to 1 3 percent that a new band receives for each record sold." The companies claim this is necessary because of the costs of internet technology, even though, as Strauss notes, "This rationale seems strange because the distribution of music on the internet is supposed to save record labels money in CD manufacturing, packaging and shipping costs."
As The Boss said long ago on that famous hit single engineered by Jimmy Iovine, "We gotta get out while we're young / 'cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run." Mann is out, off and running; perhaps it would be a good idea for Iovine to get out now while he's at least on top, if not so young anymore.
People tend to confuse capitalism with "Big Business." The great thing about free markets is that when big businesses don't please their customers, they tend to become small businesses (or ex-businesses). The Music Business seems be entering just such a danger zone, hated by both suppliers and patrons. Young buyers aren't buying, new technologies aren't being embraced - in fact, they're being resisted as tech no-no's--and many once-favored artists are figuring out that their labels aren't in fact doing them any favors, commercially or artistically. Aimee Mann has become the poster girl for such artists, "exhibit A" as she says in "Nothing Is Good Enough." If the free market is as rational as theorists would have it, then Aimee Mann will find a way to be commercial while continuing to make music her way, and our screenplay will have the happy ending it deserves.