Friday, June 6, 2008

Money, Trouble or Thrills


More music today. I'm an economy-sized fan of Aimee Mann's and her latest is ...

@#%&*! Smilers by Aimee Mann (p. Paul Bryan)

My first inclination when I see cartoon symbols for cursing -- the kind that appear in the title of Aimee Mann's new album -- is to pretend they indicate the filthiest, most horrible oaths I can imagine. It's fun! And it isn't hard to imagine Aimee slinging similar expletives in the direction of just about anyone with a smile on his or her face.

Unlike my Pop Culture America co-host, however, I try to keep the cussing to a minimum here at PCA Central, so for our purposes, let's assume that what Aimee means by "@#%&*!" is "consarned."

Consarned Smilers.

For Aimee Mann, a smile beaming out indicates one of two things: cluelessness or duplicity. She appears to find the notion of a smile indicating simple, heartfelt joy laughable. And she'd laugh out loud at it as long as she didn't have to smile first.

When she begins "It's Over" with the observation, "Everything's beautiful/Every day's a holiday," you just know the knife twist is coming. You don't have to wait long. "You make plans, but they're hopeless," she continues, "and you blame God when you're lonely." By then, the irony of the first lines positively drips.

That song, and much of @#%&*! Smilers, is addressed to an addict trying to kick the drug of choice. And failing. Mann at first seems perplexed by that failure because after all, it's just a matter of NOT doing something. Just sit still. Stay home. No problem. Right?

Well, no. Like too many things in this life, it's not that easy. "You've got a lot of money/But you can't afford the freeway," Mann puns on the album's first single, "Freeway." The cost-free (in more ways than one) path of not scoring drugs, of not fueling addiction is, ironically, further beyond the means of the wealthy addict than the drugs themselves. The costs rise as the album and the addiction progress.

In "31 Today," a birthday is "celebrated" with booze and lifeless sex. A break-up turns ugly in "Medicine Wheel." With "Looking for Nothing," all ambition, all hope has been drained from the attempted recoverer: "I wasn't looking for nothing/Not money, trouble or thrills." It's a measure of the addicts twisty synapses that the singer employs a rare triple negative.

By the time of "True Believer," Mann is reduced to contacting her addict friend via a medium (You're a poltergeist"), addiction having taken its final toll.

Most of these songs lope along at an unassuming mid-tempo pace, with a few slight variations. An occasional horn chart or a Cars-esque old-school synth sting punch up the proceedings, but for the most part, Aimee and Jaime Edwards's subdued piano hold sway. The arrangements only bog down when producer (and bassist) Paul Bryan and arranger Patrick Warren allow the string section to swamp a few songs like "Stranger Into Starman" and "Phoenix." Mann's cutting words and comfortable alto sit better in sparser settings.

So the Consarned Smilers of the title grin as they sell their poison, beam while they lie about it. Or else they're just happy because they're too consarned stupid to know better.

Sometimes all you can do is look at them and say, "@#%&*!"

3 stars.


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