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.”


seracahoone“I’m safe for now, but I know the rest is on its way…”

The music on Sera Cahoone’s second album, Only As The Day Is Long, is solidly in a country vein, complete with acoustic and steel guitars, fiddles and banjos. This set of ten songs has been aptly described by her record label Sub Pop as “country noir,” as the lyrics are often marked by unease or tension, but listening to the record is hardly the heavy going “country noir” may imply in the minds of some potential listeners, as the focus here is on solid, stylish songwriting and musicianship, highlighted by Cahoone’s lovely and evocative voice. Definitely recommended for mainstream country and alt-country fans alike. Standout cuts: “Baker Lake,” “Only As The Day Is Long,” “Shitty Hotel” and “You’re Not Broken.”

New Zealand based singer/songwriter Liam Finn makes his debut with the thoroughly engaging I’ll Be Lightning, a collection of 14 tracks that immediately establish him as someone to watch. If you notice a mild vocal similarity to Neil Finn, then it’s because Liam is Neil’s oldest son, but on I’ll Be Lightning, Liam stakes out a sound all his own (quite literally, as he played most of the instruments himself). A lot of the music here is folk and pop inspired, with some Beatles influence here and there, though there’s a sort of screeching acid rock freakout that concludes “Lead Balloon,” which is Finn throwing in a curve ball occasionally. A solid debut, worth your time if you’re a fan of Elliott Smith or even Neil Finn. Standout cuts: “Better To Be,” “Second Chance,” “Lead Balloon” and “Energy Spent.”