When we heard that singer-songwriter Aimee Mann's newest album, @#x%x*! Smilers was coming out today we started to search through the papers, blogs, and music magazines for reviews for a Critical Mass. Unfortunately, after almost an hour of searching, we only found two reviews. WTF? Mann, as you may know, is an Oscar-nominated songwriter and achieved mainstream success with her group 'Til Tuesday ("Voices Carry," anyone?) and on her own. So why is she being ignored? Is it because she is no longer considered "relevant"? [Paging Paul Thomas Anderson! -Ed.] Or is it because, as Maura Johnston at Idolator wonders, "perhaps Jewel's first country record fulfilled the 'female singer-songwriter' quotient for most publications this week"? The reviews, and maybe a little ranting, after the jump.
This would not be the first time that Aimee Mann has been mistaken for Jewel, even if Mann made the comparison for laffs. Both are blonde, wispy female singer-songwriters who sing melancholy songs that were sort-of popular 10 years ago. Of course, Jewel is also 14 years younger than Ms. Mann, so perhaps when the entertainment editors at the big papers and mags were deciding who to review this week they were also factoring in Jewel's age into the decision. But maybe that's just our cynicism speaking! Unfortunately, we've come a long way from the era of Lilith Fair, when multiple female singer-songwriters were getting played on mainstream radio and female pop stars did not have to display their shaved labia to get attention.
Mann may not have found answers to all of life's questions on "Smilers" - the search for self is perpetual, after all - but each attempt means refinements to her craft. This time, the strong songwriting and astute musical arrangements combine to make Mann's latest her best album so far.
Midway through another nuanced collection of mid-tempo '70s-pop-referencing tunes that document the lives of folks who manage only fleeting moments of happiness between protracted stretches of frustration, this L.A.- based veteran songwriter runs head-on into what she typically approaches sideways. "I thought my life would be better by now," she sighs over an anxious keyboard riff in "Thirty One Today," a song about getting older (but no wiser) that's so simple and catchy and scarily true that it opens an ordinarily shut door into Mann's dimly lit, astutely rendered world.
UPDATE: We just got another one, sent in by one of our readers (thanks, Alice!):
The A.V. Club:
Unwisely picking up where 2005's The Forgotten Arm left off, @#%&*! Smilers offers craft and monotony in equal measure. The promising directions are also the tersest: "Stranger Into Starman" revamps chamber-pop via Broadway in under two minutes, and the even jazzier closing duet "Ballantines" is adorably bouncy. With rare exceptions ("Ghost World"), Mann has always been more of a melancholy mood-setter than a storyteller, which is no help for the many, many wrist-cutters on display here. (Dishonorable mention goes to "Medicine Wheel," a piano-based ballad sounding like the wimpiest of '70s singer-songwriter refugees.) Mann's formidable talent demands collaborators pushing counterintuitive arrangements; she's offering fewer colors with every album
For more on Mann, check out the feature interviews appearing on MSNBC and the WSJ's website, where the singer talks about her cadre of famous comedian friends and her penchant for curse words. (We're betting she's probably uttering a few "fuck yous" to the mainstream music press right about now.)