Copyright 2000 The Houston Chronicle Publishing Company  
The Houston Chronicle

January 16, 2000, Sunday 2 STAR EDITION


LENGTH: 379 words

HEADLINE: Mann-made soundtrack ;
Turbulent songs set tone for film






THE National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences needs a new category for soundtracks: best vocal album of original pop music for a motion picture.

If such a category existed, Aimee Mann's nine-song suite for Magnolia would be an early front-runner for 2000 honors.

It's impressive in itself that Mann created a series of songs consistent enough in theme and tempo to work as a score for Paul Thomas Anderson's winding, complex epic. She went further, however, and managed to make the songs an additional character, ready-made for the big screen or stage.

Mann's achievement is especially compelling considering the troubled, interlooping story lines of Magnolia. There are at least a dozen diverse players here, their common bonds loneliness, vulnerability and the shame of secrets buried long ago.

That emotional tone is set to music beginning with Harry Nilsson's One, a cover of the Three Dog Night hit that is now haunting and foreboding in new skin. As an introduction to Jason Robards' bedridden elderly man and William H. Macy's child-celebrity turned adult-nobody, it is a masterstroke.

The songs aren't galloping heart-tuggers like Whitney Houston's in The Bodyguard. Mann works in the subdued musings of a woman watching all these lives unfold from a distant vantage point. Those who remember her from her '80s new-wave band 'Til Tuesday will barely recognize this softer, smarter coffeehouse soother.

On Build That Wall she blithely crosses into the early-'70s leisure of Burt Bacharach, while Deathly is practically a journal entry by the movie's drug-addled offspring of stardom.

The set's crescendo is Wise Up, a summation of everything that will never be right in Magnolia. In the movie each character takes a moment away from personal trauma to sing along with Mann. It's a bold device that could have turned hokey; it works, thanks to strong songwriting and spare piano by Benmont Tench. Tom Cruise looks especially anguished mumbling this melody from behind the wheel of his car.

Extras by Supertramp and Gabrielle and a small instrumental by Jon Brion finish the disc but aren't needed. Mann's work is cloudy and torrid enough to make frogs fall from the sky.

3 and 1/2 stars

GRAPHIC: Photo: A collection of unreleased songs by Aimee Mann, left, inspired movie director Paul Thomas Anderson, right, when he wrote his new film, "Magnolia." Mann's songs are now the core of the movie's soundtrack.