Despite that unwieldy, rather craven title (a coy @#%&! precedes the title, in lieu of proper swearing), Smilers
has already been acclaimed by some critics as the best record in Aimee Manns long career. Few fans will be disappointed. The opening "Freeway" may be built around a fairly slight play on words ("you got a lot of money but you cant afford the freeway" goes the chorus) but the nagging melody and expansive synth-laden arrangement, reminiscent of her East Coast counterparts and suburban critics Fountains of Wayne, is nigh on irresistible. "Stranger Into Starman" is a mere snippet, and all the better for its brevity, while "Looking For Nothing" is a perfect example of the southern Californian blankness Mann has captured for years now. The lush, orchestrated country-rock of "Phoenix" rhymes the title with kleenex and truly captures the mood of someone leaving for good. Sean Hayes sounds uncannily like a boozy Antony Hegarty on the deceptively jolly closer "Ballantines", named for a whisky, while author Dave Eggers picks up a credit for his rather good whistling on the gloomy, undeniably pretty "Little Tornado". The painfully detailed "Thirty One Today", a distant memory for Mann, is another successful attempt to voice dissatisfaction. Only the chirpy horns on the admonishing "Borrowing Time" actually lighten the mood. Smilers
is an excellent record, cleverly thought out throughout. But the smiles here are rueful at best.Steve Jelbert
Aimee Mann's seventh album sees her return to the (seemingly) simple format of finely-crafted songs. Produced by her bass player, Paul Bryan, the overall sound takes us fans back to the heyday of her work with Jon Brion on albums like Batchelor No.2. What makes Mann such a treasure is the fact that at the heart of her work is a darker, bleaker world view than you'd expect from the tastefully Beatlesque arrangements and melodies that cocoon it. Like Neil Finn, with whom she shares a certain, pop-for-grown-ups sound, there's little fancier here than piano acoustic and drums (with the occasional strings). Yet whereas Finn's songs concern themselves with temptation and loss, Mann's oeuvre revolves around the black heart of her native California.
The characters that inhabit songs like 31 Today or first single, Freeway, are always marginal souls, struggling with isolation, obsession and addiction. Indeed, a theme that seems to recur is alcohol and its aftermath. There's the bar room 'jollity' of Ballantines where she's joined by ambient folk guru, Sean Hayes, while on It's Over she says: '' Everything's beautiful, every day's a holiday, the day you live without it''. Meanwhile on 31 Today she's drinking to alleviate the disappointment of her fourth decade (in reality she's actually in her fifth).
The other typically 'Mannian' theme is the nature of relationships that border on abusive. On Phoenix her lover loves her like: "a dollar bill. You roll me up and trade me in," while on I Did The Right Thing she returns to the kind of righteous payback that she's always been so good at. In other words, Aimee Mann knows it's a deeply flawed universe we inhabit. Remember this is the woman whose work inspired Paul Thomas Anderson's film, Magnolia. And there are few less flattering representations of humanity.
Still, despite the ornery cussedness of the album's title, what we come away with is something undeniably beautiful and subtle. Like all her best work it will continue to unfold and grow with repetition. And that's the sign of true artistry, and something to smile about. --Chris Jones
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