John Metzger's #9 album for 2008
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2008, Volume 15, #6
Written by John Metzger
Thu June 19, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
Anyone who found the literary conceits of The Forgotten Arm to be overbearing or, for that matter, the autumnal air of Lost in Space to fall a tad flat certainly will be pleased with Aimee Mann’s seventh solo outing @#%&*! Smilers. The title to the sharply written collection pokes fun at those who put up a false front rather than facing their unraveling lives. It also provides a clue to the direction in which Mann has headed.
Superficially, @#%&*! Smilers commingles the gentle melancholia of piano-led ballads, such as Stranger into Starman, with the perkily playful, pop-oriented arrangements of tracks like its first single Freeway. The outing contains subtle nods to Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Liz Phair, though Mann also slips just as easily into the sublime, gospel-soul machinations of Medicine Wheel. There even are hints of The Beatles percolating through the jaunty Borrowing Time, while True Believer echoes Phantom Planet’s breakthrough single California. Every track on @#%&*! Smilers is bolstered by an infectious melody, and all of it sounds warm, inviting, and, at times, downright cheerful.
Only after @#%&*! Smilers has been played repeatedly do its lyrics (and their underlying meanings) begin to leave an impact. In truth, a feeling of general dissatisfaction permeates the set. With her words, Mann highlights how all the heartache, the pain, and the loneliness of life in southern California seem to stem from the disposable nature of rampant consumerism. Love, like everything else, has become a prepackaged product, and she doesn’t miss an opportunity to address society’s shortcomings. Like Chrissie Hynde, she takes pity on her characters without hiding the condescension in her voice when she sings Freeway. Later, she rejects a companion on Phoenix by comparing their relationship to a cheap, financial transaction.
The chronicling of the seedy emptiness of life in southern California is nothing new, of course. In fact, over the years, the film, television, music, and publishing businesses collectively have turned such pursuits into something of a cottage industry, albeit one that ebbs and flows with the times. Whether it has been sparked by the current economic downturn or ignited by a long overdue bout of post-9/11 reflectiveness, it’s clear that a shift in priorities currently is underway in at least some corners of America. The thirst for change, the hunger for deeper meaning, and the quest for salvation seem to grow stronger by the day. On television, Showtime’s Californication has taken direct aim at the vapidness of the Western world’s often hedonistic lifestyle. Even the upcoming Presidential election has become a debate about whether the country should maintain or completely alter the status quo.
Of course, as Mann’s fans know, these concerns aren’t new to her repertoire. They are, after all, what allowed her songs to slip so perfectly into the framework of the epic film Magnolia. They also are what held together The Forgotten Arm’s depiction of a crumbling relationship. With @#%&*! Smilers, Mann stops short of trying to force her tunes to fit within the scope of an overarching narrative. Yet, these recurring, common themes, when combined with the personal reflection of a track like Thirty-One Today, effectively bind her compositions together until they form a subversive meditation on what is ailing Western society.
Of Further Interest...
@#%&*! Smilers is available
from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box