CD Review of @#%&*! Smilers by Aimee Mann
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Aimee Mann: @#%&*! Smilers

Reviewed by David Medsker


ext year will mark the 10-year anniversary of the emancipation of Aimee Mann, and she will be the first to tell you that she has made far more money running her own record label than she ever made as a cog in the machine. (Of course, much of that is due to her concert ticket prices more than doubling in that time, but that is another story.) It’s a great story, where our heroine – surrounded by cynical execs (they tried to get Mann to write a song with Diane Warren) and fiscally irresponsible label heads (Imago goes belly-up) – sticks to her guns, negotiates her freedom, and gets the guy (I now pronounce you Mrs. Michael Penn). Many of Mann’s peers would love to have such a happy ending.

Here, however, is where we ask an unpopular question: Mann has done phenomenally well as the sole act on her label SuperEgo Records…but how are her fans doing? Are they better off now than they were when Mann was working for the Man? They will undoubtedly tell you that they’re doing just fine – and to be fair, they are, since Mann has yet to make a truly bad or even mediocre record – but how many of them prefer the SuperEgo releases to the Epic/Imago/Geffen albums? Most will no doubt say they prefer them as a matter of principle, but from our viewpoint, there are times when we wished Aimee had an A&R man that said, “I don’t hear a single.”

Such is the dilemma surrounding Mann’s latest album, @#%&*! Smilers. There is nothing particularly wrong with it, except for the fact that she’s clearly capable of doing better. Well, okay, it must be said: her songwriting has gotten a tad formulaic. The album’s closing track, “Ballantines,” is a song that Mann has already written at least once (“Way Back When,” from Whatever) and possibly twice (one lick is straight from the I’m With Stupid track “Frankenstein”). “Freeway” – which is as close to a single as the album gets – is a direct descendant of “Red Vines,” and “Phoenix” is this album’s “Little Bombs.” “It’s Over”? “Driving Sideways” meets “High on Sunday 51.” Not all of @#%&*! Smilers is derivative of a previously recorded Mann song, mind you, but those songs present a different problem – they’re just derivative. It’s also languid, like her 2002 album Lost in Space but with half as many hooks.

Is it possible that the press may be partly to blame? After all, the way that her albums are rubber-stamped with glowing reviews – in the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that this writer gave Mann’s last album, The Forgotten Arm, a glowing review – one can see where Mann could get complacent. But even the boss needs a swift kick in the ass once in a while, and if no one else is willing to give it to her, we will. Had she released @#%&*! Smilers while still with Geffen, they would have rejected it, and been well within their rights to do so.

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