Aimee Mann has a gift for crafting instantly catchy tunes. So was she playing a practical joke when she made the chorus of one of her best new songs: “I’m a Labrador”? Try walking down the street with that one in your head. You’ll be getting stranger faces than the girl from “Crazytown”.
Charmer is worth the long looks. On “Labrador”, Mann’s pet Maisie becomes a metaphor for the way Mann has let people take advantage of her – a scenario that is comically portrayed on the new “Labrador” video, where Jon Hamm hams it up as Mann’s spread-legged, mustachioed director. But Mann/Maisie knows a lot. She sees through ne’er-do-wells and the games that people play with her, even if she’s not so good at “Irish Goodbyes” (“Soon Enough”). “You lie so well/ I could never even tell the facts from your artful rearranging” she sings. Being had never sounded so homey. Before each chorus, the soulful piano hook comes waggling back to Mann’s vocal.
After listening to the title track, “Charmer”, it’s hard not to follow Mann around like a puppy. The song is her deadliest confection, burying all the charms she wrote with her late-eighties new wave group, ‘Til Tuesday. It’s simply “a battle you cannot fight.” Zippy guitars winnow around her low-swiping vocal. Defiant and witty, the song is like a Kristen Wiig-kind of bridesmaid to Liz Phair’s “Polyester Bride”. When Phair asks, “Should I bother dating un-famous men?” Mann is in the back of the congregation, lowering her thick glasses.
Charmer is about Mann’s torpor amid a world of charismatic go-getters. She reveals that the “climber who climbs” (“Living A Lie”) is as covertly toxic as “an army that keeps arming” (“Slip and Roll”). In a recent interview, Mann said that she feels easily duped by people with heavy-handed convictions. In her pensive, observant way, Mann asserts herself on this album. As if written in a memo-to-self, she penned: “They don’t know that secretly charmers feel like they’re frauds” (“Charmer”).
The comfier side of fraud is, of course, “Living A Lie”. The Shins’ James Mercer assists Mann on this acoustic-driven song where they duet in ignorance-is-blissful harmony. Yet the gentle instrumentation belies Mann’s darker meaning, connoted by her sweetly rhymed words like, “boss” with “loss.” In a similar vein, on “Soon Enough”, she asks: “Go around the room and see who doesn’t cry.”
For all of the down and doubtful lyrics on Charmer, Mann has never sounded like more of a natural. Beyond the pop tunes, the sloping strings of “Red Flag Driver” and the honky-tonk hush of “Barfly” and “Gumby” are quietly compelling. The best deep cut is the stripped down piano accompaniment and yo-yo styling of “Slip and Roll”, with the lyric: “Throw me a bone/ Or leave me alone / To do what they call coping.” Sounds like Maisie the Labrador is polishing off a cold one after a long day of fetch. The song slips into a rocking roller, as she sings on “Gamma Ray”: “One thing leads to another and another/ and none of it’s good.” Subtle distortion builds into an electric shredder. Rather, “it turns into a monster/ a nightmare that you force yourself to live.”
Speaking of passive aggressive rage, you might have seen Aimee Mann cleaning Carrie and Fred’s house on Portlandia. The sketch plays on the way ’90s singer-songwriters have “disappeared” (Sarah McLachlan is outside trimming the hedges). But judging by Mann’s steady performances and releases, Mann could very well turn up at your doorstep and play “Save Me” in your living room. Well, maybe that only happens if you’re Carrie Brownstein.
In the late eighties and early nineties, Mann and her female contemporaries like the Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan and Kim and Kelley Deal of The Breeders were unashamed to talk about personal politics with honesty. This didn’t always work to their advantage. As Jancee Dunn wrote in an essay from 1997: “Because she often writes songs that deal with relationships, Mann gets unfairly pigeonholed as Relationship Lady.” Fortunately, Mann continued to create, endure, and improve over the subsequent decade. While she calls herself the “master of a thankless task” on “Disappeared”, she is neither of those things as a singer-songwriter. And she’s hardly been cleaning toilets. Generations of artists will be thanking her for years to come.
Essential Tracks: “Charmer”, “Labrador”