Aimee Manns latest album, @#%&*! Smilers, is being called a return to form, a further refinement on the pop sensibilities wry and ironic lyrics set against bouncy, folky rock that characterized her earliest post-Til Tuesday efforts, Im With Stupid and Bachelor No. 2.
Its a solid collection of songs, with the lingering sound of producer Jon Brion glossed over the tracks (although he hasnt worked on her last two albums). Its a marked contrast to her last few albums, The Forgotten Arm (a concept album about a drug-addled Vietnam vet), the sleepy Lost in Space and the popular Magnolia soundtrack. For a catchy collection of songs, the title kicks things off on what seems to be a decidedly cynical note, although Mann doesnt see it that way. Fucking smilers it was a private joke with a friend of mine, who was irate about being told to smile by a stranger, she says. Its kind of inappropriate its none of your business whether Im smiling or not.
The seemingly grumpy comment belies a protective privacy and control over her music and career. When asked if she dips into the Til Tuesday catalogue when on tour, she says no; its part of her moving on, a well-deserved freedom from the record label woes that plagued her in the past. When her old label Imago tanked, she was stuck in limbo trying to get her second album, Im With Stupid, released. Now, she produces and distributes her own records. Im my own record label I only hand [my albums in to] myself. I think its less work, too. The thing is, now, I only have to make a record and worry about the musical aspect of it. Before, I had to try to get something past a whole row of people, and have the energy to try and protect the record.
While running her label, SuperEgo Records, has afforded her more freedom in recording and distributing her records, Mann isnt immune to the industrys woes of declining sales and downloading. I dont think [moving to an independent label] makes a difference so many people download and burn albums for their friends, whether youre on a major label or not, she says. That kind of takes 50 per cent of your income away. For an indie, it hurts more because I have to pay for everything myself. Record stores are closing; sales from four years ago are half of what they were before. Its a giant problem.
Business concerns aside, Mann is known as a songwriters songwriter, adept at spinning tales of lovelorn slackers and relationship woes. With writing, you gather. If its about somebody else, you relate to it from your own experience, she says. Paul Thomas Andersons Magnolia was inspired, in part, by songs of Manns that later showed up on the films soundtrack (Melora Walterss cocaine-addled characters line, Now that Ive met you, would you object to never seeing me again? was lifted from the song Deathly). Despite being, as Anderson calls her, a great articulator of the biggest things we think about, Mann says there isnt anything autobiographical about her songs. When I do interviews, she says, I dont know what people find interesting.