Copyright 1996 The Washington Post

The Washington Post

February 02, 1996, Friday, Final Edition


LENGTH: 983 words

HEADLINE: It's a Mann's World

BYLINE: Joyce Jones


WHEN ONE considers the number of female musicians who've had a measure of critical and commercial success in the '90s -- Liz Phair, P.J. Harvey, Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos, Juliana Hatfield, Kim Deal of the Breeders, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Tanya Donelly of Belly -- the image of women fronting rock bands seems commonplace. A decade ago success was a trickier prospect.

Some notoriety could be achieved on the new wave or nascent indie rock scenes. There were folk-popanomalies like Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman. If you were Madonna -- hey, no problem. But the most successful acts were lightweight girl groups or novelty acts like the Go-Go's, the Bangles or Debbie Gibson. Today Chrissie Hynde and Patti Smith are credited as tough and iconoclastic role models, but there was another high-profile, if less rockin', '80s performer whose talent stood out -- Aimee Mann.

"It was very unusual then, and it's nice to have it kind of taken for granted now," Mann says by phone from Boston. As the leader of 'Til Tuesday, Mann was a songwriter, lead vocalist and bassist with a Top 10 hit, "Voices Carry," that charted for five months. On the accompanying video (an early MTV fave) she even convincingly acted a bit. Since then, she's either collaborated or performed with four giants of song-writing: Elvis Costello, Ray Davies of the Kinks, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds and Andy Partridge of XTC.

Yet Mann clearly remembers a time when her status was the exception. "It becomes very annoying to have it mentioned over and over again as being some big achievement that you can actually play or write a song or whatever. It gets really condescending after a while."

And even in this more inclusive decade, and perhaps because of her link with the previous one, being a woman singer-songwriter has occasionally been a drag. "I've been turned down by record companies. The 'Whatever' album was turned down by, for instance, A&M because they already had a female singer-songwriter, which was Sheryl Crow. 'I'm sorry, we already have one, so we can't sign you.' That's pretty insulting."

On this day, Mann is between the second (Providence, R.I.) and third (New Haven, Conn.) stops of a month-long tour -- on the road with a new band to support her Geffen album, "I'm With Stupid." (You'll have to wait 'til Tuesday to see them at the Bayou.)

Her first solo album, "Whatever," evoked the Byrdsy '60s and made a number of critics' best albums lists for 1993. "I'm With Stupid" shares the rougher production and fuzzy guitar sound of the musicians she currently likes: Phair, Beck, the Loud Family, Oasis and the Posies. But where Beck might bury a catchy tune under trippy effects and textures, Mann's loyalty to melody and harmony conveys her (Berklee) music school background and her attraction to pure-pop figures like Costello. There are songs about broken hearts, dashed expectations and music biz weasels, but they come across as wry rather than bitter and are often so buoyant that the cynical words are overshadowed.

The album features "That's Just What You Are" -- her first single to break the Top 100 since 1989 -- which was also on the album "Melrose Place -- The Music." Other songs range from "Sugarcoated," with the Mick Ronson-esque stylings of ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, to the more 'Til Tuesday-sounding "Choice in the Matter," to a Neil Youngish "Par for the Course," on which Mann does it all -- drums, bass, guitars, keyboards and percussion.

And there's a bouncy pop song called "Superball." When asked if she knows another band has a "Superball" on its newest album, Mann immediately answers: Helium (led by Mary Timony, formerly with D.C.'s Autoclave). "I know Mary very vaguely to say hello to her in the street. A mutual friend, after he'd heard my record, said, 'Oh, Helium has a song called "Superball" too.' I think we were sort of making our records about the same time."

Juliana Hatfield, another "hello-on-the-street" acquaintance, sings harmony on two "Stupid" songs. About their contrasting voices, Mann has said: "I don't really sing high, so Juliana was perfect for high harmonies. She's got that kid thing; I love that. I have this vibrato that I can't really get rid of, and she has absolutely none."

Besides Hatfield and Butler, Mann gets help from Squeeze's Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook as well as her beau, Michael Penn, with whom she lives in Los Angeles.

Mann has had a string of music business boyfriends from Jules Shear to Dave Gregory of XTC to Jon Brion (who produced "Stupid" and is her sometime song-writing collaborator) to singer-songwriter Penn. And though many of her songs have been ruminations over troubled romances, her record label woes come in a close second.

'Til Tuesday's label, Epic, was unhappy when Mann began to move away from the synthy sounds of "Voices Carry" to more acoustic-based pop songs. Mann feels Epic essentially killed the band's last album, "Everything's Different Now," by not promoting it sufficiently.

She toured during the last three years of her Epic contract but didn't release another album. Her first solo album was funded by her manager. They shopped it around, and it was released by Imago in 1993. Just when it seemed she had found a good match and had recorded "I'm With Stupid," Imago lost its distributor. After months in limbo, Mann moved to Geffen Records.

Though she's happy with Geffen so far, on the question of what makes a good record label, Mann defers. "You've just got to get that expensive music business lawyer," she says with a little bit of a laugh. "There is no substitute for it. Call up the guy who's the lawyer for Guns N'Roses. Actually that's my lawyer, so forget it."

AIMEE MANN -- Appearing Tuesday at the Bayou with Semisonic. To hear a free Sound Bite from "I'm With Stupid," call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8121.


GRAPHIC: Photo, Everything's different now: Aimee Mann has a new label, album and man.