Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Not At All The Ultimate Collection, Aimee Mann's First Compilation Leaves Fans Wanting.

The Good: Good songs, Decent vocals, Fine lyrics, Duration
The Bad: Missing plenty of good songs, Mann's career is nowhere near over
The Basics: A disappointing compilation lacking some of Mann's best - or most memorable works, Ultimate Collection may be passed by.

Rather infrequently, I find myself listening to a compilation album where the artist being featured seems to have made the compilation album far too soon in their career for my liking. After all, there are plenty of musical artists who do not know when to bow out, but arguably an equal number who are so prolific that when they get to a "Best of," "Greatest Hits" or similar album, the listener is left scratching their head and saying "why now?!" In the case of Aimee Mann, I'm there with her album Ultimate Collection.

Ultimate Collection seems to have come after Mann's first four studio albums (including the Magnolia soundtrack) and given that she had at least three more albums after, that just seems too soon. After all, any true "Ultimate" collection for an artist has to come after the artist is done producing new works. Even Bob Dylan's new albums have a song or two that rocks with meaning! So, my first gripe with Aimee Mann's Ultimate Collection is that it implies the artist has stopped producing or none of her new stuff is worth comparing to the older works. Given that "Sign Of Love" from 'Til Tuesday made it into this compilation, there is no way that that may be true!

With 20 songs clocking out at 85:30, Ultimate Collection is a decent representative sample of the works of Aimee Mann. Mann wrote nine of the songs by herself and only three of the songs are cover songs, so her creative influence from the concepts of the songs through their final executions is pretty impressive. Mann provides the lead vocals for all of the songs, including the ones from 'Til Tuesday. As well, Aimee Mann plays several musical instruments on the tracks, often playing more than one instrument on an individual track. Mann's only glaring creative omission is from the production aspect of the album. Aimee Mann was not involved in the production of any of the songs. Even so, because so many of them were produced by her frequent co-writer Jon Brion, it is hard to argue that Mann did not get the results she wanted.

And those results, compiled here, are a generally mellow grouping of pop-rock songs with more emphasis on pop than rock. Despite Mann's use of guitars in her solo career, much of her sound on this album is actually the sound of keyboards and bass (like on her 'Til Tuesday song "Voices Carry") or a more orchestral sound, as on "Wise Up" and "Jacob Marley's Chains." While there are less-produced tracks, like the live version of "The Other End (Of The Telescope)," most of the songs are musically rich with a stronger instrumental influence. So, for example, Mann opens with the playfully poppy "That's Just What You Are," which has a singsong tune and rise and fall of the instrumentation that makes it almost surprising it was never a mainstream hit.

Vocally, Aimee Mann is a woman who has surprisingly good range, but she tends to play only within one register in each song. So, for example, she is beautifully sopranic on "Jacob Marley's Chains," which makes the song haunting and heartwrenching, but she goes dusky and lower on "You're With Stupid Now." The result is that she plays to the mood of each song expertly, but few of her songs explode with real emotional or vocal range. Thus, despite writing some exceptionally operatic tracks, none of the songs on this album have the operatic range and feel.

Part of the problem with the range comes from the lyrics as well. I listened to "Baby Blue" with such disgust as I heard Mann's voice go through the singsong rhymes "All those days became so long / Did you really think I’d do you wrong / Dixie, when I let you go / Thought you’d realize that I would know / I would show . . ." Fortunately for fans of Aimee Mann, “Baby Blue” is the exception to the rule on this album and one of the songs not written by Mann!

Indeed, Aimee Mann has an almost Folk sensibility to her singing and songwriting. She tells little musical storysongs on several of the songs and they have clear meanings about human relationships. She even manages to slip in some serious irony with her lines like "He's infinitely wise / But he infinitely lies / We're no longer just plain folks / No, we're old and sad and bored / And we're not funny anymore / We're like Jimmy Hoffa Jokes" ("Jimmy Hoffa Jokes"). Mann expertly weaves songs together that focus on loss or death in relationships while making broader pop culture references that still pop today.

But ultimately what makes Aimee Mann's lyrics work so well is that she is poetic about the most powerful human emotions: love and loss. When Aimee Mann sings "Skip the cloak and dagger bit / Don't you know we're sick of it / As much as I would like to stay / The message light just blinks away / And while I'm here you won't push play / So you leave me no choice in the matter . . . You leave me no / Option to indulge in this / Exercise in cowardice / Ignorance without the bliss" ("Choice In The Matter") it is hard for anyone who has suffered through a tough break-up to not feel torn up by the words.

Unfortunately, some of the songs, like "Sign Of Love" are just terribly repetitive and a boatload of worthy tracks were omitted. So, while Mann's career is not over, the career she had when this compilation was made was still not presented as well as it ought to have been. As a result, fans will truly want to wait for the real ultimate collection which might come in about twenty more years when Aimee Mann is done making music.

The best track is "Wise Up," the low point is "Sign Of Love."

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
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.

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