'Til Tuesday
Aimee Mann

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Strongest album: Whatever
Must to avoid: Voices Carry

Boy, am I glad I'm not one of Aimee's ex-boyfriends. Not that I'm not sure she's a nice person, but she really obsesses over failed relationships. Really obsesses. It's her main subject, the primary text for her songs in 'Til Tuesday and her solo career. Her talent is for turning melancholy and romantic misery into blissful pop, and luckily Mann has proven an exceptionally talented songwriter. Though she's produced some of this decade's most hummable and emotionally penetrating pure pop, she's never cracked radio (mainstream or alternative) or really gotten her due. To be a bit cynical about it, the reason might lie in the fact that for all the "women in rock" hype, stardom and critical accolades still go the prettiest and freshest faces. As a woman who's been in the biz for over a decade and doesn't thrust her sexuality in your face or screech a fashionable political agenda, Mann doesn't stand a chance commercially against many more successful and far less talented female performers. Mann doesn't present much of an image; she just presents herself as she is, along with some very good songs. Which all just proves once again that a lot of people prefer style over substance. It took Mann a while to get to where she is today, though; unlike a lot of rock performers, she's actually improved over time, and her solo career's much better than most of her work with her former band.

There's not much out there for fans of Aimee, I'm afraid. All I could find was this small page from her record company.

'Til Tuesday: Voices Carry (1985) **

Despite the great title cut, Aimee's career really gets off on the wrong foot with 'Til Tuesday's debut. Songs like "Love In A Vacuum" and "No More Crying" are bland and forgettable, oversynthed mid-'80s MTV-rock. Remember Berlin? The Motels? Well, if you do, then you've got a pretty good idea of what this sounds like and should wisely take the hint to stay away. You kids who don't remember '80s synthrock should feel lucky, and I doubt this will interest you except as a historical artifact in the way that some people groove off on mediocre psychedelic '60s bands. Another problem is that Aimee hasn't quite mastered her singing style yet - she sounds whispery, thin, and vocally limited; sometimes you're painfully aware that she's having to struggle to be heard above the blandly lush synth blare. Closing side one, however, is the one worthwhile song: "Voices Carry", perhaps Mann's best and most affecting song, and the rare song that actually improved with its video. Our hearts all bled for poor Aimee as she played the part of women in abusive relationships everywhere, and the chorus that we'll never forget managed to sound both defiant and defeated. It's one of my mom's favorite songs - she always made us kids keep quiet when it came on.

'Til Tuesday: Welcome Home (1986) **1/2

An improvement, but not that much of one. Mann's singing has improved, and she tentatively displays better songwriting. Neither one of those steps in the right direction are enough to make this album more than a boring repeat of the debut, however. There's no song of the caliber of "Voices Carry", which didn't stop "What About Love" (same title as a Heart song, same quality, too) from becoming a hit. I bet you didn't remember that, did you? That's because good hits like "Voices Carry" linger in our memories, while bad hits just fade away. Don't believe me? Okay, then hum from memory a Tiffany original. I knew you couldn't do it. "On Sunday" is easily the highlight; its chiming, vaguely '60s-AM pop feel points toward Mann's near future. Little else is memorable, however. At this point no one would have guessed that Aimee Mann would have amounted to anything more than the lead singer of a mediocre one-hit wonder band; none of her considerable talent is on display on the first two 'Til Tuesday albums. Things would change for the better, though....

'Til Tuesday: Everything's Different Now (1988) ****

Somehow or the other Mann blossoms into an important songwriter on this album; the quantum leap between this album and her previous output defies rational explanation. Cutting down on the overproduced synth quotient certainly helps, as does collaborating with the likes of Elvis Costello on "The Other End Of The Telescope", and another famous pop songwriter by the name of Jules Shear. If you don't know the soap opera behind this album, here's the story: Aimee and Jules were an item, and they broke up shortly before this album came out. To commemorate their failed relationship, Aimee and Jules wrote songs to each other about it, and this album is erected to it. Weird. Fortunately several very good songs come out of this experience. On the title track, Aimee sings a song written by Jules about his falling in love with her - the ironies of context are several. "You've got to be smart," Aimee says at one point, "If you're fooling yourself", acknowledging the "Limits To Love" (which is actually about her parents). The mournful "J for Jules" is pretty blunt about the specific source of her anguish; "(Believed You Were) Lucky" is similarly obviously autobiographical. "Crash And Burn" and "Rip In Heaven" are a bit more abstract, but no less pointed and appealing for it. The band remains subtle and understated throughout, creating an attractive musical bed that puts the focus squarely on Mann and her songs; something of a "For No One" (Beatles song, remember?) feel pops up through the proceedings, underscored by the occasional french horn embellishment. Fascinating in its blurring between autobiography and art, it's also a highly enjoyable and accomplished pop album. Unfortunately, record company entanglements and litigation prevented Aimee Mann from releasing a new album for five years, during which 'Til Tuesday broke up and her solo career proper began.

Aimee Mann: Whatever (1993) ****

Perhaps her best effort, Mann's solo debut is one of the best singer-songwriter albums in recent memory. Because she's a popster with a sharp ear for chorus hooks and hummable melodies, instead of some blandly earnest, musically uninteresting folkster, she gives the term singer-songwriter a good name. You'd think that five years later she'd have gotten over her breakup with Jules by now, but she's still treading the same old ground. "Fifty Years After The Fair", about an old couple, and "Put Me On Top", a generic plea for escape into stardom, stand out because they're refreshing breaks with her standard subject matter. However, she's so lyrically detailed and incisive - and enjoyable on a purely musical level - she manages to make the proceedings seem compelling. This is the '90 not the '80s, so the musical backing's improved - it's based on jangly guitars and piano ballads, not boring old synthesizers. Particularly moving is "Mr. Harris", a touching May-December romance that gains extra power through the accumulation of details: he looks like Jimmy Stewart in his younger days, she met him raking leaves. Mann has learned well from the masters of the short story in pop song form - Difford/Tilbrook, Elvis Costello, and Ray Davies seem to be her primary influences. "I Should Have Known Better" and "Could've Been Anyone" (cowritten with Jules Shear and one of the guys from the Church) are the obvious anthemic singles, and why they didn't chart I'll never figure. She's mainly being sharp and accusatory throughout ("Stupid Thing", "I've Had It", "Say Anything", etc.), but she rarely turns her focus inwards enough to fully convince me - I'd like to hear the other side of the coin; in breakups there's always two parties at fault.

Aimee Mann: I'm With Stupid (1995) ****

She's repeating herself again - the same old story about the end of the affair. It raises the question of whether Mann is truly this obsessively focused on this one issue or her vocabulary is simply limited in terms of subject matter. That aside, Mann has delivered another winner, a deeply emotional album with penetrating lyricism. The sound's more modern - she's obviously been listening to Liz Phair and P.J. Harvey; the first words are "You fucked it up", delivered in a tender whisper that belies the venom of the lyrics. Song for song, it's probably a bit more inconsistent than her previous album, but the high points are higher and I like the way it sounds better - as I said, it's more modern, with a more stripped down approach. Highlights include "Choice In The Matter" (you've got to love a songwriter who realizes halfway through that her song's melody is the same as an old nursery rhyme, and so then starts to sing it!); "Superball", which takes off at midpoint with a searing solo that Mann grooves off of out into the fadeout; the piano ballad "Amateur", with Juliana Hatfield on backing vocals; the mid-tempo "That's Just What You Are", with Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook from Squeeze on backing vocals; and "Ray", which rumor has it concerns her encounter with Ray Davies, but it's so ambigous that you can't really tell what relationship she's discussing (for my money, I don't think it's about the Kinks leader at all). At this point, Mann has proved herself a very talented, compelling songwriter; if she can break out of the mold she's typecast herself in, her next album might even be better than her last three.

[Music from the Motion Picture] Magnolia (1999) ***1/2

The stupefyingly boring 3-hour inflated soap opera Magnolia (one of the lamest followups to brilliance in film history, coming on the heels of Paul Thomas Anderson's great Boogie Nights), did resuscitate Mann's stillborn career, so all was not a waste. Prevented from releasing music for several years due to typical major label industry bullshit, Mann's comeback album proved her most commercially successful since the first Til Tuesday album (which just shows how little taste the public has), with "Save Me," a modest Adult Contemporary Radio hit. Softening further into adult easy listening territory, Mann's elegantly detached (sometimes downright icy) songwriting and music-crafting revisit familiar lyrical territory, but after years of public neglect and career frustrations, much more downbeat, even blatantly defeatist - "Wise Up," advises "it's not going to stop, so just give up" as the chorus. The 8 Mann originals (plus an excellent, creeping cover of Harry Nilsson's "One") remain as well-crafted as usual, more stately than before but still showing off a knack for the catchy melodic chorus ("Driving Sideways") and classicly barbed lyrical verbosity ("Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing me again?" the first lines of "Deathly"). It's too bad that you have to put up with two Supertramp songs and Jon Brion's soundtrack orchestrations near the end, but it's a soundtrack, after all. Just turn it off after track #9 and you've got a fine, long overdue Aimee Mann album.

Reader Comments

Rolf Rykken, rolf202@earthlink.net

Hi, saw your page while looking at Aimee Mann's site. This piece is from 1996, written while I was a contributing music critic for America Online's electronic magazine, Critics Choice. (I wrote for the section from 1995-97; AOL closed it out in 1997.) Saw her in early Aug. 99 at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., outside Washington, D.C. Mostly acoustic, though she did break out her electric bass for a few numbers. She also did a few numbers from her privately produced 10-song CD that is the basis for her new CD she said might be out by the end of September.


CONCERT: Aimee Mann

By Rolf Rykken

ARTIST: Aimee Mann
VENUE: Bayou, Washington, D.C., February 6, 1996

Just before she slid into a performance of her recent hit single, "That's Just What You Are" from TV's "Melrose Place," the angular, statuesque Aimee Mann quipped, "Did anyone actually buy the soundtrack?"

Apparently so, and Mann's catchy song was a likely motivator for a generation unfamiliar with the edgy soprano who materialized on the rock-pop scene 10 years ago leading the group 'Til Tuesday with the hit, "Voices Carry."

It was Mann's stark looks, distinctive vibrato and direct, emotional lyrics that made her stand out, and they still do, though her writing matured with age, as did her musicianship.

At a recent sell-out performance at Washington, D.C.'s Bayou, it was clear Mann was more concerned with her current music and overlooked the vociferous demands for "Voices Carry" from a few women in the audience.

Instead, she gave them "Mr. Harris," a charming, romantic song about a younger woman loving an older man that contains the line, "Sometimes it takes a lifetime to get what you need," backed only by keyboardist Patrick Warren.

That song was one of the gems of her 1993 "Whatever" album, which yielded some modern-rock radio hits, "I Should Have Known," among them, but nothing to match the success of "Voices" until "Just What You Are."

These songs put Mann in the forefront of current modern-rock performers because of her integrity, intelligence and emotional directness. She also likes to play rock. It is obvious in her harder new album, "I'm with Stupid" (Geffen), and strikingly so in live performance.

Dressed in a long-sleeve white top and faded blue jeans, Mann strummed her acoustic guitar (she plays acoustic, electric lead and bass on several cuts on "Stupid") and danced and bobbed happily on stage with lead Michael Lockwood.

Mann's music is very allusive to some of the best of historic rock--Lockwood's George Harrison-like twists made "I Should Have Known" even more Beatles-esque, while "Could Have Been Anyone" contains impressive references to Roger McGuinn of The Byrds.

Mann has taken the brunt of ribbing about her lyrics--tales of love lost and the outrages of emotional stunted men (who abound in her songs), as if lost love weren't already a universal subject. So with some of the songs from "Stupid," which dominated the club performance, she dresses up as really exposes about the rock-music business ("You're with Stupid Now," "All Over Now," "It's Not Safe"). It's a little too Inside Politics, even though stories of her problems with recording labels are widespread. But who cares about jerks in the music business? These songs are really about relationships, a perfectly valid and time-honored theme, and one Mann shouldn't have to feel she has to disguise.

Mann and her strong, punchy band (Lockwood, Warren, John Sands on drums and Drew Ross on bass) garnered three encores from the crowd, which at one point received a little tongue-lashing from Mann, after the 70-minute performance.

Mann defended the opening band, Semisonic, a loud, enthusiastic quartet, which endured some abuse from one of the club's usual thick-necked patrons. "I personally chose them," she told the crowd. "They're great song writers."

Don't mess with Mann.

(C) Copyright Critics' Choice 1996. All Rights Reserved.

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