Copyright 1996 Boston Globe

The Boston Globe

Length: 991 words
Author: By Jim Sullivan, Globe Staff
Date: Friday, January 26, 1996
Page: 59
Photo: AIMEE MANN At: The Paradise, Boston, next Tuesday


Aimee Mann has a new album, "I'm With Stupid," coming out Tuesday on DGC/ Geffen.

"Yeah, that's a shock," says Mann.

Did she think she would be ground up forever in the music-making machinery?

"Well, you know, there's still time," Mann says, bittersweetly, on the phone from Los Angeles, where this formerly Boston-based singer-songwriter now lives. "It's the music business, you know. I mean, you have no control over it. If everybody who works at Geffen now leaves and some other people come in and those guys are all into a different kind of music... I mean, Geffen used to be the heavy metal label... If the people in charge are replaced by morons, then you know trouble will start.

"I take so little of it for granted at this point," she continues, "that it wouldn't surprise me if somebody said, 'Oh, your record isn't coming out after all.' "

If Mann were a postmodern Alfred E. Neumann, her motto might read: "What, me cynical?" Mann -- who kicks off a US club tour Tuesday with a homecoming gig at the Paradise -- probably would argue that she's not being cynical, but realistic. Epic, the label she and her band, 'Til Tuesday, once recorded for wouldn't let her out of an '80s deal, even though they didn't want to release any new music.

Finally freed, Mann signed to Terry Ellis' Imago label and released the roundly praised but undermarketed "Whatever" in 1993. Imago soon folded, but Mann was unable to wrest her way free of her contract. After considerable finagling and a near-deal elsewhere, she eventually landed at Geffen.

Not without trauma. "I was at the point where I was ready to quit the music business entirely," Mann says candidly. "It wasn't an idle threat. I was pretty much done... In my altercation with Imago, I said, 'Forget it. I've had enough. I can't put this record out anywhere; you won't let me go; you have no label.' "

It was life-crisis time. "How could I make a living? That's what was concerning me. I was investigating how I could make a living. It was over. But it's like when you finally get fed up with that difficult girlfriend and you know it's over and then she comes back to you and says, 'I do love you, after all.' What are you supposed to say to that?"

As it happened, a friend who works at Geffen brought in her "I'm With Stupid" tape, and Geffen said welcome to your new home -- "if you could ever extract yourself from the pleasures of Imago." Finally, she did.

In this case, it would seem, everybody wins. "I'm With Stupid" -- much of it co-written with ex-boyfriend and longtime collaborator Jon Brion -- is a gem: It's a bittersweet pop pill, clever and barbed, insinuating, smooth on the surface but tough-minded. It starts with the faux-breezy melodic pop of ''Long Shot," which boasts a classic accusatory kickoff coo of "You expletive it up . . ."

Mann has recorded five radio-friendly versions of the song, editing or altering the offending verb. She's bemused. "Think about it for a minute: There's no word to replace it with. You 'fouled' it up? You 'blew' it? 'You 'messed' it up?" Mann laughs.

"I'm With Stupid" is an album of terse introspection, post-punk rock and Joni Mitchell-esque folk-pop. It's both self-lacerating and outwardly cutting. A lot of pretty melodies with some frayed edges. Is it about Mann's romances, her personal turmoil?

"I think there's more on this record that foreshadows the record company struggle," says Mann. "I don't think anybody really enjoys it when they have no control over their life. All relationships are personal. I take a record company very personally and if I'm describing a kind of struggle that reminds me of another kind of struggle, I can chuck that in, too."

Although Mann, 34, has a relatively low profile in America, she is a much more known presence in England, where her friendship and work with Elvis Costello has helped boost her stock. That, and the exquisite songs she writes -- most of them about relationships in some sort of distress. One English mag tagged Mann as "the great blonde hope."

"There seems to be a segment of the population that likes the first record and continues to like this record," says Mann. "England is very trendy, but they don't have things that fall into strict categories. Pop music includes Pulp and Oasis, Liz Phair and Whitney Houston."

In America, Mann says, she's often perceived of being left-of-center. "Oh, please," is Mann's response. "Where could your center possibly be if I was that left of it?"

True enough. In the post-Hole world, Mann comes off as almost restrained and wistful. Her collaborators on "I'm With Stupid" include Squeeze's Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, high-harmony pal Juliana Hatfield and current boyfriend Michael Penn.

About the only time that left-of-center perception might have been completely valid was during the late -'70s when Berklee student Mann formed the dissonant art-noise band, the Young Snakes. With 'Til Tuesday, she was well on her way to pop craftsmanship. Success struck in 1984 with the arresting song and video of "Voices Carry." There was a brief high, a taste of stardom. But follow-up efforts didn't hit the same level and by 1989 the ever-volatile band was history. In the popular imagination, 'Til Tuesday were one-hit wonders from the new wave/MTV-stoked era.

Mann retrenched and shed her video babe vibe. She's been reconstructing a more mature career ever since. It seems as if there might be a path.

"This is Plan B," says Mann. "It's an interesting road to go down, but I don't feel like I'm back on track. It's, like, I realize there is no track anymore."