The Good: Decent vocals, Good instrumental accompaniment, Some insightful lyrics, Decent production
The Bad: Short, Some repetitive lyrics
The Basics: Despite being short and somewhat repetitive, @#%&*! Smilers is arguably Aimee Mann's best album in years.
When I finished up with Aimee Mann as my Artist Of The Month back in May, I had the good fortune to end with her last album (at the time) @#%&*! Smilers and for it, I have to say this is probably the album I have waited for from Mann for the bulk of my listening to her works. Aimee Mann started out creatively, if a bit poppish in 'Til Tuesday and after she left that band, it seemed like she struggled to find her sound or - once she found it - stayed in a rut for a while. With @#%&*! Smilers she is out of her rut and creating new music that sounds fresh, interesting and good, even if it is a bit repetitive.
Indeed, the two biggest problems with @#%&*! Smilers come from the album's replayability. The album is short, which is always a black mark against c.d.s from talented artists because one has to assume if they are smart and creative enough to write their own works, they can fill out the capacity of a c.d. a bit better. On @#%&*! Smilers that problem is exacerbated some by the fact that the album is frontloaded with the catchiest tunes which rely on either one-line concepts or heavy repetition of the refrain (or both).
With only 13 tracks occupying 45:51 on c.d., @#%&*! Smilers is a concept album in grumpiness and loneliness from Aimee Mann. Mann, true to form, wrote eleven of the songs and co-wrote the final two. She provides all of the lead vocals (though there is a guest vocalist who performs "Ballantines" with her as a duet) and she plays the acoustic guitar on most every track. Mann is not involved in the production aspect of the album, though her bassist was the producer and it is hard to imagine Mann would have used him and kept him on if she was unhappy with how he was producing. In other words, this is very much the creative endeavor of Aimee Mann.
And what an endeavor it is! On @#%&*! Smilers Aimee Mann leans more toward the rock spectrum of pop-rock with songs like "Freeway" and "31 Today." She has her trademark pop ballads in "Columbus Avenue" and even ventures into a musing, light pop place for "Stranger Into Starman." What is so instrumentally significant about @#%&*! Smilers is that Mann returns to a creative place on the album where she is able to make songs that do not sound like either the traditional guitar/bass/drums or keyboard (piano)/bass/drums sound that she has been mired in for a few albums. The result is an album that has surprisingly catchy, memorable tunes which actually rock.
On @#%&*! Smilers Mann gets instrumentally creative and part of that comes from broadening the instruments used on her tracks. After a period where she pretty much defined herself through an orchestral rock sound, Mann spreads her creative wings. "Borrowing Time" has a distinctive sound because of the presence of the Moog synthesizer and use of horns on several tracks infuses the songs with a very different flavor from the mundane pop rock sound Mann and many other musical artists have become mired in. Even "Little Tornado" sounds distinct arguably because of the whistling in it.
Vocally, Aimee Mann is at the top of her game on @#%&*! Smilers. She comes on strong with vocal force on "Freeway," but is able to mellow and coo in quiet sopranic tones elsewhere on the album. Mann continues to illustrate her vocal range track by track without jumping registers on individual songs. Even so, it is hard not to like the results of many of her efforts. @#%&*! Smilers is a vocally beautiful album and every line Mann sings is clear and crisp. I tend to like albums where the lyrics may be easily understood, so it is a pleasure to listen to this album for that reason.
Thematically, the album is a bit darker. @#%&*! Smilers leans toward the depressed and depressing. With lines like "Here on the boulevard, you were the golden boy, / A mix of brains and muscle / That was a lucky break, / Luck is a thing you make, / Not just another hustle / But you sit there in the darkness, / And you make plans but they're hopeless, / And you blame God when you're lonely, / And you'll call it fate, when you show up too late and it's over" ("It's Over"), it is hard to get pepped up by this album. In this fashion, Aimee Mann avoids sounding like she is producing bubblegum pop.
But what I found myself respecting Mann for most on @#%&*! Smilers was how she takes simple rhymes and actually makes them work well for her. From the very first time I heard her song "31 Today," I wanted to criticize it for being too simple. However, the song isn't "too" simple, it uses a perfect economy of language and rhymes to say exactly what it intends to. I have frequently found her lines "I thought my life would be different somehow / I thought my life would be better by now / But it's not and / I don't know where to turn" ("31 Today") to be caught in my head and it is hard not to groove to it the way she performs the lines.
Unfortunately for Mann, her own cleverness drags down the album. Early on on the album there are songs which have clever lines that are smart, insightful and different, but the song feels belabored around the single line. So when Mann sings "You've got a lot of money but you can't afford the freeway" ("Freeway") the point is made: the rest of the song is just filler around that line. Sure, it sounds good, but it replays poorly and the one line becomes tiresome. The song might not be so noticeable for the flaw were it not for the fact that "Stranger Into Starman" which follows it suffers the same problem and is a less engaging song.
This, however, is not nearly enough to not recommend @#%&*! Smilers to anyone who likes pop-rock music or strong female vocalists. For anyone who likes pop-rock that does not sound like what is on the radio currently, Aimee Mann's @#%&*! Smilers is enough to make one wish they could hear music of this caliber over the airwaves.
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
Lost In Space
The Forgotten Arm
One More Drifter In The Snow
For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.