Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Whatever Is Nothing To Be Ambivalent About: It Might Just Be Aimee Mann's Magnum Opus!

The Good: Good vocals, Instrumentally diverse, Generally decent lyrics
The Bad: A little lighter on the duration than I would like.
The Bottom Line: A very strong album that replays exceptionally well, Whatever may well be the best Aimee Mann c.d. I've yet heard!

When I made Aimee Mann my Artist Of The Month, I found myself overwhelmed by Aimee Mann albums to listen to and as I've drove around for several days for my job, I was listening to Mann's album Whatever on pretty heavy rotation. Initially, I was more neutral to the album, but the longer I listened to the album and the better I could hear it on my car speakers, the more I enjoyed the work. The reason for that is simple: on Whatever, Aimee Mann excels as a composer and her lyrics are sharp and interesting. Despite a few very predictable rhyme schemes, Whatever is a surprisingly engaging album.

My partner's big objection with many female singer-songwriters is that a lot of them take up either a very limited rockin' position or they fall in with the "one woman and a piano" sound which she finds limiting. On Whatever, Aimee Mann leaps out of that otherwise problematic potential set of niches by exploring a very large array of musical sounds and styles, which is a trait common with many of the best female singer-songwriters. Regardless of where Aimee Mann went afterward, on Whatever, she is an artist with a surprising array of lyrical and musical diversity.

With fourteen tracks (the last one being only a nine second blip), clocking out at almost fifty-three minutes worth of music, Whatever is very much the musical vision of Aimee Mann. Mann wrote all of the lyrics - though she co-wrote "Stupid Thing," "Say Anything," and "I Know There's A Word" with Jon Brion, who produced most of the tracks on the album. Mann wrote most of the musical accompaniment as well and she plays several musical instruments - electric guitar, bass, dixie cup (I kid not!), acoustic guitar, pump organ, mellotron, percussion, and nylon string guitar - on almost every track. She provides all of the lead vocals and it is clear, despite the album not having a production credit for her, that this was the music she intended to make, especially at the time.

What the music is is a truly alternative form of pop-rock. While there are songs that rock ("Could've Been Anyone," "Say Anything"), many of the songs move toward pop either pop-rock ("Put Me On Top") or pop ballads, like the haunting acoustic pop "Jacob Marley's Chain." But what makes Whatever such a surprisingly good album is that the songs are not traditional guitar, bass, drums or piano, bass, drums pop music. Instead, Mann mixes things up with songs like "Mr. Harris" which has a very orchestral instrumental accompaniment to it. After all, how many pop artists employ the oboe? The song sounds truly different because it is and Mann's broader sense of the musical world is clearly displayed in her songs on this album.

Vocally, Aimee Mann is very feminine on the album with many of her songs utilizing her extraordinary soprano voice. She shows her range on "Stupid Things" where she goes a little lower - into the alto range - before soaring to sopranic heights. She also manages to make her vocals sound delightfully strained and emotional. On "Jacob Marley's Chain," she becomes quieter and haunting while on "Fifty Years After The Fair" there are moments she sounds positively bubbly. Above all, she is articulate and her lyrics may be very clearly understood.

On Whatever, Aimee Mann presents songs that leap between being musical story-songs ("Mr. Harris") and emotional rallies ("I Know There's A Word"). She even goes for direct social commentary on songs like "4th Of July." What makes her songs so generally good is that Aimee Mann is an able poet. When she sings "Today's the fourth of July / Another June has gone by / And when they light up our town I just think / What a waste of gunpowder and sky / I'm certain that I am alone / In harbouring thoughts of our home / It's one of my faults that I can't quell my past / I ought to have gotten it gone" ("4th Of July") it is clear she has both something to say and an uncommon way of saying it.

One of the things I enjoyed most about Whatever was the passion with which Mann wrote her lyrics. She creates one of the most memorable and wrenching songs with "Stupid Thing." The way she presents her lines "Oh, you stupid thing / Speaking of course as your dear departed / Oh, you stupid thing / It wasn't me that you outsmarted, / You stupid thing / Stopping it all before it even started / I bet you knew it would come / That's just like you, to sit back / And just play it dumb / One word of warning would help / But that sacrifice was made / Trying to save yourself" ("Stupid Thing") in front of soaring and falling instrumental accompaniment, she is able to state and connote such passion. Her rhyme scheme for the song works because she expresses such a powerful human emotion in her lines.

Not all of the songs are gold, though and largely that comes from her repetition within some of the songs. For example, the way she belabors the title in "I Know There's A Word" with her repetitions: "I know there's a word for this / I know there's a word for the way I'm feeling / I know there's a word for this / I know it, and it's on the tip of my tongue / And it won't go any further" almost insult the intelligence of the listener.

That said, one of the nicest aspects of Whatever is that the songs are musically rich and well-written and performed, which makes them smarter than most pop-rock right off the bat. "Whatever" finally justifies the faith listeners might have had in Aimee Mann's potential musical career. I know I finally feel like I am not wasting my time with listening to her works when I replay this album!

The best song is "Stupid Thing," the low point is "I've Had It" (which is more unmemorable than bad).

For other works by ‘Til Tuesday and/or Aimee Mann, please check out my reviews of:
Voices Carry - 'Til Tuesday
Welcome Home - 'Til Tuesday
Coming Up Close: A Retrospective - 'Til Tuesday
I'm With Stupid
Magnolia Soundtrack


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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