Defenseless Until the Pencil Stops
57 · 29 February 96
Aimee Mann: I'm With Stupid
In 1985, when "Voices Carry" hit MTV, I was 18, and Aimee Mann looked to me like about the coolest human alive. She had the best hair, she played bass, and the video fearlessly confronted an actual issue, rather than depicting her and her band awkwardly adrift in some meaningless and arbitrary wash of video tricks. The fact that, at the time, she could barely sing (and this was still an age in which calling attention to a voice's waifish frailty was not yet in vogue) was momentarily puzzling, but then again, wasn't that what processing was for?
Voices Carry had several songs I liked, but my musical devotion to Aimee didn't really take hold in earnest until "Coming Up Close", on 'til tuesday's second album, Welcome Home. This floored me the first time I heard it, and I continue to think it one of the most beautiful and moving pieces of music ever made. The first couple years of college involved, among other traumas, frequent brief separations from my records, and it became my tradition, whenever I returned to them, to celebrate the reunion by playing this song. "Everything sounds like 'welcome home'", it goes, and I sang along, aloud at first, and then silently as a personal favor to my roommates and their therapists.
The band then disintegrated, and Aimee made 1988's Everything's Different Now as a 'til tuesday record in name only. It was artistically impressive and commercially unsuccessful, in sadly similar amounts. Some time during my senior year I was at a party where we were exploring the hypothesis that fame invariably corrupts (ah, college), and I offered Aimee as a counter-example, somebody who did not seem to me to have been corrupted by her success. To this some drunk idiot responded with an elaborate, if slurred, anecdote about having once snorted cocaine off of Aimee's naked stomach, and that is the second closest I've ever come to taking a life.
Which is all by way of saying that by the time Aimee's solo debut, Whatever, finally escaped from label-imposed limbo in 1993, I was about as predisposed as anybody to like it. And sure enough, I did. Writing about it at the time, I said that it sounded like Aimee had been making a solo album a year since Everything's Different Now, each one better than the last, and this was number five or so. When I made my top ten list at the end of the year, Whatever was an obvious inclusion. Now, looking back at that list, though, all I can think to say to myself is, "Eighth? Whatever only came in eighth? Where was my mind?" Every time I think I understand how well I like the album, and go to listen to it again to confirm my feelings, I discover that I'm still underestimating it. There's a lot of decade left, but it wouldn't surprise me if in four years I'm nominating this album as one of the Nineties' finest moments.
And yet, after all that, I find myself underestimating her new album, I'm With Stupid, as if I've learned nothing at all. The first few times I listened to it, I thought to myself "Well, it's pleasant enough, but after a year of waiting for this album, I was expecting something a little more remarkable." Then I listened more closely, and thought "Actually, there are some really clever phrases scattered throughout, but every time I read somebody else's review of this album, I'm completely lost. Biting wit and lyrical brilliance? Why do I just hear sing-song rhymes and repetition? And how are people getting these ideas about what these songs are about? 'You're With Stupid Now' is about her record label experiences? 'Sugarcoated' is about Bernard Butler's characterization by the British press after he left Suede? If you say so, but you'd never derive those impressions from anything in the songs." Well, a few plays ago I broke through some sort of barrier, and now I'm pretty sure I'll come to like this one nearly as well as Whatever, at least. I expect to eventually cherish things about it that I haven't yet even been able to put into words, but here's what I've figured out so far.
First, the reason these songs didn't seem initially striking to me is not that they aren't remarkable, it's that they are not attempting to create any new genres. Aimee has, at least for the time being, identified her aesthetic niche, a school of tirelessly melodic and resolutely timeless pop songwriting whose other adherents include Elvis Costello, Difford and Tilbrook, XTC (all of whom she has collaborative ties with), Crowded House and, here in the US, Matthew Sweet, Jules Shear, Scott Miller, (again, connections), the Connells and Tommy Keene, not to mention her producer and musical accomplice, Jon Brion. Her songs sound like they were composed in half-decorated bedrooms and at old pianos with sandwiches sitting forgotten by, adaptable to acoustic radio-station appearances with little modification, songs that you could make sheet music for and give to kids or college a cappella groups. Simple, elegant, calm and unassuming, this is music that finds a middle ground between showtune intricacy and folk-song storytelling, between power-pop drive and retro-jazz reserve, between indie roughness and big-production gloss, between three-chord humility and technical detail work. When you say "pop", this is as pure an explication as you could ask for of one of the things you might mean.
Second, Aimee and Jon Brion, who produced everything here except "That's Just What You Are", have devised productions and arrangements for these songs that perfectly suit all these tensions. Guitar tones range from chiming acoustics to ringing electrics and smooth tube-distorted rhythm washes. Backing vocals (from Brion, Clayton Scoble, Tilbrook, Difford and, on "You Could Make a Killing" and "Amateur", Juliana Hatfield) support Aimee's clear waver without distracting focus from it. Straightforward bass and drum parts supply rhythmic emphasis without trying to supersede the structure inherent in the guitars and the voices. Aimee and Jon both fill multiple roles on most of these songs, and this helps create the feeling that everything here is here because they wanted it, not because there was some band member sitting around who insisted on adding something where nothing was needed. Discretion is an underrated quality in rock, but this album does a good job of stating the case for it.
And third, Aimee really is a compelling lyricist, just not, I think, for the reasons usually cited. Yes, there are the occasional barbed phrases, like "I swore you off but / You climbed back on", "Now I have given you so much rope / You should have been hanging for days" and "You don't know how to manufacture / Sturdy bones with a hairline fracture", and provocative observations like "'Cause the most perfect strangers that you can talk to / Are the ones who pretend that you're not really you" and "All you want to do is something good, / So get ready to be ridiculed and misunderstood, / 'Cause don't you know that you're a fucking freak in this world, / In which everybody's willing to choose swine over pearls?", and true, several of these songs take on a new dimension once you hear what Aimee claims they're about. Her real skill, though, in my opinion, is her knack for words and images that suggest interesting emotions even when you don't know what they were originally meant to convey. The fact that some of these songs do not contain explicit reference to their nominal subjects is, I think, not a flaw but what redeems them. As Aimee sings "I don't even know you anymore" over the purring guitar and synthetic strings of "Par for the Course", the resignation in the admission is its own justification, and whether the song was written about anybody in particular is worse than irrelevant. "You're With Stupid Now" is supposedly half about her record-label experiences and half about an idealistic British politician, but it's better without either of these referents, more intriguing as heartfelt advice that you can't quite understand why she's giving you, the appearance of Margaret Thatcher a detail that has more to do with Aimee's own experiences in England than anything in the life of the person she's singing to. And the line in "Sugarcoated" about being "defenseless until the pencil stops" holds my attention much longer if I think that it might be my own writing that leaves me vulnerable, not other people's.
And lastly, and most trivially, the presentation of the lyrics in the booklet is one of my favorite meta-jokes about our era, and about things that we do for no other reason than that our technology lets us. I'll let you enjoy it for yourself when you open the package. My particular fondness for it is undoubtedly related to my having done a reworking of the complete text of Hamlet a while back, using a similar principle, which I keep hanging on a hook outside the door of my office at work, as a ward against banal spirits. It works better than you might imagine, especially if I combine it with wearing extremely silly hats.
Tommy Keene: Ten Years Later
If there were an Olympics of pop songwriting, and we were allowed to send representatives who have been at least nominally professional at it, and for some reason I was given the task of choosing them, Tommy Keene might well be my captain. Every song he writes sounds to me like a concise showcase of the virtues of the form. He uses the same chords everybody else has access to, and neither his voice nor his guitar playing are much better than excellent, but somehow in his hands humble tools build soaring cathedrals. Or, actually, not cathedrals, but small, comfortable houses, for perhaps the most remarkable thing about Keene's songs is how familiar and unassuming they are, how quietly and calmly they creep into my mind, and how firmly they cling there, despite the lack of claws on their furry paws. (Houses with paws? Is there such thing as metaphor epilepsy?)
One could reasonably lament how few Aimee Mann albums there are, or wish that they'd sell more copies, but compared to Keene she's like Whitney Houston on ESPN's college basketball schedule. This is only his fourth proper studio album in fourteen years, and mentioning him draws blank stares almost as reliably as this interminable joke about camels and AM radio that I sometimes insist on telling, even though the punch line is a pun that only makes sense when you see it written. Emblematic of Keene's unforgivable obscurity is the fact that even I, a hopeless completist who would nominate him for National Treasure status if I could find the right form, have not been able to find a copy of Strange Alliance, his 1982 debut album. A pair of promising 1984 EPs led, after a long delay, to the 1986 album Songs From the Film, which may well top my reasons-to-own-a-turntable list now that RPM has reissued the first three Comsat Angels albums on CD, and whose song "My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe" remains on my pop-song masterpiece list to this day. Another EP came out later in the year, but then the cone of silence descended again until 1989, and Based on Happy Times, which has gotten good reviews elsewhere, but which I thought was abjectly misproduced, submerging Keene's buoyant songwriting under thick processing applied with, it seemed, the misguided hope of making him seem more fashionably aggressive.
After another silence, the 1992 EP Sleeping on a Roller Coaster seemed to herald an imminent full-fledged return, but 1993's The Real Underground, while stunning, was only half new, combining ten other tracks from the 1992 sessions with thirteen EP and unreleased tracks from nearly a decade earlier. Bizarrely, Alias then put out a 1994 UK-only release called Driving Into the Sun, which combined the five songs from Sleeping on a Roller Coaster with nine of the ten new songs from The Real Underground and one otherwise unavailable one, and thus ended up looking like a genuine new album, with the ruefully appropriate exception that its material was, by then, two years old.
But all that is behind us now, because despite the retrospective-sounding title, Ten Years After is a whole album of Tommy Keene songs that, as best I can determine, exist nowhere else. As with the 1992 material, his core band here is a trio, with him playing guitar and occasional keyboards, Brad Quinn on bass and backing vocals, and John Richardson on drums. Whether his stint touring with Velvet Crush as their second guitarist actually influenced this album's sound or not I don't know, but it shares their essential muscular sweetness, albeit without quite as much nostalgic Byrds atmosphere. Keene's voice is clear and resonant, like a less squeaky Mitch Easter or a less nasal Jules Shear, and while his songs are of a type with Aimee Mann's at the core, he tends to substitute American precursors like the Replacements, the Plimsouls and Translator for the British wing that Aimee takes after these days, and his arrangements tend more to the electric, with the wall-of-guitars setting getting a whole lot more use than Martin-in-a-coffeeshop.
The bad news, and to me there's only one of it, is that no one song on this album leaps out and supplants "My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe" in my affections. Nothing here has quite that song's melancholy sparkle, nor its desperately insistent lyrical hook. The flipside, though, is that where I'm hard-pressed to name more than a couple other songs on Songs From the Film without looking at the album cover (which isn't to say the other tracks there aren't great, just that they tend to get obscured in my memory), Ten Years After is an almost overpoweringly consistent whole. The pace and texture vary enough to keep things from getting monochromatic, but crashing drums, roaring (but indefatigably tuneful) guitars and plaintive vocals are never very far away. "Going Out Again" and "On the Runway" are dense and explosive. Throbbing bass drives "Turning on Blue". "Today and Tomorrow" reminds me of the Connells, with whom Keene now shares management, and the syncopated acoustic guitar on "Silent Town" reminds me particularly of elements of George Huntley's Connells songs. "Your Heart Beats Alone" and "Good Thing Going" are charming and unhurried, and Eric Heywood's slide guitar gives "If You're Getting Married Tonight" a mournful country twang. "We Started Over Again", with its cascading drum rolls, reminds me most of Velvet Crush. "Compromise" is a giddy stomp, and "You Can't Wait for Time" could be a square-dance soundtrack. And while the arpeggios on "Before the Lights Go Down" are classic Tommy Keene, the synth cello that simmers underneath them is a new touch. Not a moment is out of place. A boisterous bonus fragment (a Townshend cover? the credits mention one that I didn't spot elsewhere) rounds out a richly inspiring and warmly inviting album that ought, if justice holds any sway, to be the start of a long period in which Keene happily makes lots of records, and we happily listen to them. I know I'm ready to do my part.
George Huntley: Brain Junk
The pop-song list that I have "My Mother Looks Like Marilyn Monroe" and "Coming Up Close" on also has the Connells' "One Simple Word", so it's appropriate that the first solo record by Connells guitarist and sometimes singer George Huntley reaches stores within a week or two of I'm With Stupid and Ten Years After. I greet this one with a very different set of expectations, though. Huntley's role in the Connells is a kind of odd one. As a musician he fits in seamlessly, sharing guitar and backing-vocal duties with chief songwriter Mike Connell. His occasional songwriting efforts, though (and most Connells albums have only one or two of these), are conspiciously not the band's usual style. Where Mike Connell and singer Doug MacMillan's songs ring with smooth melodic purity and a vaguely Celtic cast, Huntley's are often kind of goofy and bluegrassy, perhaps owing more to the portions of the band's North Carolina home that don't contain primarily colleges. Personally, I like the contrast that the Huntley interludes introduce to the band's albums, but I know that many other of the band's followers have his tracks programmed out by the third playing of a new Connells album. And this feedback must have filtered back to the band by now. A Huntley solo album, then, is either a very good idea or a very bad one, and possibly both. It gives George an opportunity to put out a dozen of his own songs at once, instead of spreading them over six or eight Connells albums, on the one hand, but on the other hand it's an album of all George Huntley songs, and it isn't clear how many people wanted one of those.
It turns out rather better than I expected, actually. If you don't like his style, he didn't change it for this record, so save your money for something else, but if you were sort of neutral about it, you might want to give this a chance. His songs are delicate and a little impish, and here in their native context, where each one is not a jarring transition from whatever came before it, it's much easier to relax and enjoy them for what they are, without the urge to hit Skip and get back to the sort of thing that he's interrupting.