Aimee Mann – Charmer (2012)

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If there’s a knock on Aimee Mann, and I’m not sure I buy this, it’s that the singer-songwriter’s albums haven’t always done enough musically to properly feature her mood-setting lyrical complexity. Charmer certainly answers the criticism head on.

Mann remains, for me, one of pop music’s most evocative storytellers, and this album offers a series of spotlighting textures — without settling, as she did on her breakthrough soundtrack for “Magnolia” (or, perhaps more particularly, on her broken-down boxer narrative The Forgotten Arm), into one mood or another.

At long last, for some critics, Charmer (due September 18, 2012 on Mann’s own SuperEgo Records) shoots the gap between with the hipster pop of I’m With Stupid and the ruminative circumstance of Bachelor No. 2.

Mann starts by continuing to build, I think to great effect, on the new keyboard elements that surfaced through @#%&! Smilers on this project’s opening title track — and, with the addition of an edgy burr in her voice, ends up pleasantly recalling her breakout early work with ‘Til Tuesday. But Mann’s long past the abrupt confrontation of tracks like “Voices Carry,” as illustrated by the subsequent “Disappeared,” this quietly revealed tracing of the cracks in a broken heart.

Mann’s deeply underrated solo career has been built on starkly confessional, smartly conveyed moments like that — perhaps best heard here on “Labrador,” where she turns an unblinking fealty into this devastating comparison with a loving pet who doesn’t know enough to question its own rough treatment. But Charmer never settles into any sort of expectant melancholy, as Mann adds a series of smart musical touches — from the old school (another squiggly synth in “Crazytown,” then further back into a billowing AM pop dreamscape on “Gumby”), to the modern (a tangle of backing vocals on “Soon Enough,” the punky attitude of “Gammy Ray”). James Mercer of the Shins even stops by to make an unbothered call-and-response contribution on “Living a Lie.”

To my ear, Mann still sounds most like herself, most in control of the mood, when there are fewer sounds around her devastatingly unguarded voice — as on “Slip and Roll,” which appears with all of the pent-up but barely heard menace of a far-off summer storm. “Barfly,” meanwhile, boasts a counterbalancing immediacy: She sings with the close specificity of someone whispering right in your ear from the next stool over.

But, I’ll admit, it’s hard to argue with the layered delights of the closing “Red Flag Diver,” which somehow matches swooning strings with a thrillingly overstuffed lyric. The song threatens to absolutely trip over itself, though that never happens — making for the perfect ending to a project that finally seems to combine both of Mann’s principal songwriting impulses.

It’s emotionally available, refreshingly varied, and yet stays true to her hard-won persona as a porcelain-faced, acid-tongued provocateur. In that way, maybe Charmer strikes — at long last — the perfect balance.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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