Smilers

Here she comes, the eternally smiling glad-hander, you know the one who always says something positive but leaves you wondering what she really wants. Not far behind you’ll find the yes man who never offers negative criticism to balance out the picture. Or how about that email with the excessively bright smiley face exclamation point that seems to be saying “don’t take what I’ve just said too seriously.” If you’ve had your fill of this sentiment feel free to join Aimee Mann’s club of the pseudo-discontented.

Aimee Mann seems to have plenty to smile about these days. Since her Magnolia soundtrack hit in 1999 the songwriter/singer has been riding a wave of great reviews, a successful touring schedule and respectable music sales. Her reputation has been elevated from indie-pop diva to the A-list of literate popular-music composer. And yet there is an edge to Mann’s lyrics that belie her happy melodies. Is she mimicking the very smilers who annoy her?

“Freeway,” the opening cut, begins on a familiar Mann theme, that of the charming drug addict who can’t withstand the allure of temptation. The melody bounces along in a major key while the character’s life unravels in discord. But this sound cuts to the core of Mann’s approach to music. She’s ridiculously melodic and yet she so often writes honest appraisals of lost souls and emotional turmoil. In other words she’s adept at putting a musical smiley face on a “Mr. Yuck” sticker. Pretty strings and lovely piano lines accompany the lyrics “you love me like a dollar bill/you roll me up and trade me in…and if you get the chance you will again.”

“Borrowing Time” is a blueprint for how to write a really great pop song. Clocking in at just over 3 minutes the song begins with a big happy hook that immediately catches your attention. Smart, uncomplicated lyrics play off a fairytale metaphor of the alluring but dangerous woman. A full horn section rolls out in the middle of the song which was recorded live in studio. “Little Tornado” is another fine example of the use of metaphor as Mann describes an out of control personality. But here the music is subdued and understated. Another highlight is “True Believer” a song co-written with Grant Lee Phillips.

Mann is joined by Paul Bryan (who also produces), Jay Bellarose and Jamie Edwards. Sean Hayes kicks in a duet on the disc’s last happy-go-lucky track and Dave Eggers – yes, Dave Eggers gets credit for whistles. @#%&*!Smilers is Mann’s 4th release on her SuperEgo label and features, yet again, great comic graphics to accompany the music. It’s also another feather in the cap of one of pop-music’s craftiest writes.

Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Mix Host)