Aimee Mann – Charmer (Album Review)

Bubblegum pop brings a new twist to Aimee Mann’s bubble-bursting observations on Charmer, her eighth solo album .The LA—based singer-songwriter continues to weld analyst couch sobriety to effortlessly melodic , classicist structures. Primary-coloured predecessor, 2008’s Smilers was something of a high-point, competing with Bachelor No.2 as her masterpiece. Where that album jettisoned electric guitars for ‘dusty, tumbleweed’ acoustics & electronics, Charmer brings the electric guitars back (it’s her most driven since 95’s I’m With Stupid), but retains the analogue synths. Where Smilers with its occasional sweetening of brass and strings, recalled the Jon Brion –assisted upholstery of her earlier work, Charmer is svelte, light on its feet.

The skinny-tie super-pop of Blondie, Split Enz & The Cars were all templates this time around (as were Abba & Ozark Mountain Devils’ Jackie Blue).  The Cars’ ace, queasy Minikorgs come to the fore on the opening title track (an echo of Smilers’ Freeway). Mann‘s deceptively mellow vignettes keep to a tight formula: often employing simple AB rhyme schemes and measured melodies that throw few curveballs. Within that format she is a master of the subtly devastating, unleashing heartstring chord changes and acerbic insights while barely breaking a sweat, like fatal blows in a conversation delivered without raising one’s voice. Mann’s own voice remains a plaintive instrument, temperate yet sufficiently soulful that Bettye LaVette covered Bachelor No.2’s How Am I Different? .

The 2005 song cycle, The Forgotten Arm was, aptly enough, named after the boxing technique that allows a fighter to strike his opponent with a punch his foe never saw coming. Never one for an overly radical departure, her music is full of understated tensions. Cold of eye and warm of heart, she often offsets Bacharach/Beatles/Elton John romanticism with the razor edge of a Costello or Mitchell. It’s that noir/sunshine dichotomy that makes her an archetypal Angeleno. If the sturdy song-craft harks back to the bygone era of Laurel Canyon, its shorn of all Eucalyptus trees & Dulcimer whimsy and filtered through a modern lens of therapy-speak and levity.

Often misconstrued as dour, humour is her secret weapon and the titular tune & Crazy Town in particular are laugh-out loud funny. Charmer probes the bud of charisma and finds self-loathing worms there.

Crazy Town, examines the merry dance between an unhinged woman and the borderline masochist who strives to save her. It’s like Jackie Blue’s dreamy lady ‘split open’: with her ‘wishes that never come true’ and half empty ‘loving cup‘ all amounting to some chronic disorder. It would be easy to peg Mann into the middle of the road were it not for the fact that in her songs, the ditch is in full view. These are familiar Mann narratives of dysfunction: narcissists and addiction but vitalized by nervy, new wave immediacy.

Gumby’s equally infectious. Inspired by a Hoarders episode where a man’s compulsive collecting leads his daughter to homelessness, Gumby’s unusual subject matter is rendered poignant courtesy of a most musical melody. James Mercer of The Shins makes a cameo on Living A Lie, an embittered sit-com of a duet, that again, plays out like a stage-show number (unsurprisingly Mann has been working on one for some time). The tug of war between a ‘boy genius just past his prime’ and a woman who vainly checks herself out in the mirror , sits in between the rocky romances of   American singing duos & the dyspeptic duelling of Kirsty MacColl & Shane Mcgowan on ‘Fairytale of New York’.

For all its new found synth-fuelled fizz, Charmer abounds with nods to Mann’s past. Gamma Ray fleshes out earlier novelties like I’m With Stupid’s Superball, adding depth and a lyric ‘one thing leads to another and none of its good’ that virtually crystallizes the trajectories of Mann’s hapless characters. If 2003’s Lost In Space was a treatise on narcissists and their dependents, Labrador & the organ-driven Disappeared are cut from the same cloth. Labrador’s video is a shot for shot replica of Voices Carry’s promo, the s 80’s hit of Mann’s former band, ‘Til Tuesday. Another song dealing with the compliance of a control freak’s ‘silent’ partner, Labrador has a classic Mann movement. An unassuming simple verse opens out into a sweeping chorus. What seems initially slight, grows in stature and proves indelible. Her constructions insidiously grip the listener as craftily as Labrador’s lyric (‘I know you did the best you could) undercuts sentimental cliché with biting irony.

Perhaps best of all, Soon Enough, a co-write with comic/musician/actor Tim Heidecker, is a Beatlesque, harmony- rich throwback to Bachelor No.2’s compositions. It’s an elegant reminder that Mann is oft-compared with the late, great Elliot Smith. Charmer’s second half has a more downbeat tilt, shrinking her no-hopers back into the comfort zone of minor key strums. One of her sad-sack waltzes,  Slip & Roll is a soft focus shuffle, thrown into sharp relief by a luminous Peter Green-style solo. Gritty character sketch, Barfly   chronicles a life lived far from the American dream: more hard-boiled heartbreak. Only minus the heroics so often bestowed upon the underbelly by male writers.

Her incisive studies of human nature have placed her in company far beyond the standard rock circle. The film director, PT Anderson, another golden state seer, conceived the 1999 Magnolia film around Mann’s songs and she has collaborated with scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin and author Dave Eggers. In a pop culture plagued with the kind of bruised egomaniacs her songs dissect, Mann’s work bears more resemblance to the ‘auteurism’ of these literary/cinematic figures.

Since seizing the reins from Geffen during the making of Bachelor No.2, Mann has independently amassed a body of work that is a byword for consistency. As the album’s latter stages attest, sonic reinvention ultimately capitulates to more well-worn approaches. However, unlike her subjects, there’s nothing broken in Mann’s musical lexicon to fix. She rarely falters and Charmer is a fine addition to a stellar catalogue.