Aimee Mann – @#%&*! Smilers

June 1, 2008

After 2005’s somewhat underwhelming concept album The Forgotten Arm, Aimee Mann returns with @#%&*! Smilers, a 13 track collection of music bound to please longtime fans and hopefully add some new ones. It’s not that she’s playing it safe here, but rather she’s playing to her strengths, allowing herself to cover a broad range of subjects and characters in her songwriting, rather than constricting it with a narrow focus on a single subject and a single set of characters, as with The Forgotten Arm. A couple of songs echo that album’s concern with addiction, the opening track “Freeway” and “Columbus Ave.,” while others deal with soured relationships (“Phoenix”), post-30 anxiety (“Thirty One Today”) and mercurial personages that are both thrilling and destructive at the same time (“Little Tornado”). There’s also a nifty closing collaboration between her and Sean Hayes called “Ballantines.” The songs are marked by Mann’s characteristic literate, unsentimental and sardonic style: The songs don’t look down on the characters they are about necessarily, but they are nevertheless unsparing and occasionally as bleak as the personalities they are about. The music replaces electric guitars with a wide range of keyboards to intermingle with acoustic guitars, and string and horn sections, and Mann’s own distinctive voice. The result is something that’s at once a continuation of the sound she’s been developing in her solo work since her 1993 release, Whatever, and a subtle movement forward into new territory. I’m not sure where I’d rank @#%&*! Smilers in her body of work, but then again I’m not sure I’d be interested in doing that. Suffice to say this is a top notch album from one of the very best American songwriters working now. Standout cuts: “Freeway,” “Looking For Nothing,” “It’s Over” and “Little Tornado.”


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