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What a Drama Just to Find the Door
265 · 24 February 00
Aimee Mann: Bachelor No. 2
I fear that I may have started to grow out of rock concerts. This fear seemed most palpable to me as I cowered, with my fingers over my ears, next to a worryingly vibrating bubble-gum machine at the very back of the ex-bowling-alley downstairs room at the Middle East, a few weeks ago, trying to survive just enough of Guided by Voices' set to feel like I'd been present. I'd seen GbV once before, and thoroughly enjoyed myself, but this time was a disaster. Most notably, the volume was much too high. Get earplugs, you suggest? I was wearing earplugs, and serious musician-grade ones at that; the fingers were covering the pressure valves in the plugs to further reduce the volume. Without the plugs, I would have had to leave the club during the first song. With the plugs, but without my fingers over the valves, standing at the front of the club was seriously painful, and standing at the back was still uncomfortable. Sitting on the floor, against the back wall, with my fingers over the plugs, the volume level was OK. In all of these configurations, though, the mix was almost totally unintelligible. Pollard would shout out the title before each song, so if I concentrated I could occasionally convince myself that I'd spotted the contours of that song's melody amidst the din, in the same way that you can, staring at the insides of your closed eyelids, sometimes believe that the little wriggly shapes are wearing tiny fireman's hats. But as I sat there, contemplating my own undignified posture, the absurdity of the situation was difficult to overlook: I was having absolutely no fun. Being there was as nonsensical as attending an art exhibit with a thirty-pound klieg light mounted on my forehead, shining directly into my eyes. The art and I were in the same room, but we were not interacting, and my neck was getting tired.
Worse, though, the lack of legible music left me to ponder the other details of the experience, and they didn't benefit from scrutiny. On record, Robert Pollard is a wildly erratic pop genius. In concert, he is a reliable, drunken, stumbling rock cliché. This is, of course, the point, and for the most part, the rest of the crowd seemed very happy to play along with the act. A token film of irony glazed the proceedings, but the more beer you drink, the less it matters how ironically you drank it. Hundreds of people were having a really good time, drinking, bellowing, and generally achieving what appeared to be genuine catharsis. I don't begrudge them their ecstasy, but it is not mine. I don't drink, and I don't find drunkenness even slightly endearing, not in an individual and even less so en masse. I was trying to stay in order to support GbV, but the longer I sat there, the more clear it became that this spectacle, GbV-live as distinct from GbV-on-record, was something I didn't want to support. Staying wasn't just no fun, it was actually eroding my faith in the band. I think if I'd stayed to the end, that might have been the last GbV I ever cared to hear. I left somewhere around the middle, and even that was a little too late. Thinking about GbV, more than a month later, doesn't make me feel as nauseous and angry as it did that night, but recovery is going slowly.
The GbV show might not have disillusioned me so severely if it hadn't come in the middle of an otherwise extraordinary month or two of concerts, almost all of which clustered at the opposite end of the volume and drinking continua. The only other loud show in the batch was a rare Boston appearance by Lincolnville, who were supposed to play a quiet set at the tiny bar around the corner from my house, but the sound guy pissed them off in some way, so they decided to forego restraint. Afterwards I heard him telling them that they were the loudest band who'd ever played there, but that was still without any amplification of the drums, and I felt fine without earplugs. The next loudest show was Papas Fritas, who are slightly less impish in person than on record, but not by a lot. Most of the rest of them were one- or two-performer affairs, including similarly bashful and riveting solo appearances by Mary Lou Lord, Juliana Hatfield and Mark Eitzel, and a lovely opening set (for Eitzel) by the Boston duo Mishima. And the smallest, quietest, least rock-like shows of all were two living-room appearances, the weekend before last, by Emm Gryner. Sitting on stranger's futon couch, close enough to kick the damper-pedal cord out of the back of her keyboard if I'd uncrossed my legs carelessly, me and a dozen other random people listening to her sing without even a microphone, I more or less fell in love with her. So there is the emotional swing, inversely proportional to volume, that makes me wonder if I've simply outgrown rock concerts: the music going from deafening to conversational, and my reaction pivoting from antipathy to adoration.
The compromise with which this sequence of concerts ended, for me, later in the same day as Emm's second living-room show, was the Boston stop on Aimee Mann and Michael Penn's furtive winter tour. They sold out the cozy Somerville Theater before I could get a ticket, and my initial disappointment was basically mild, since I've seen them each once before, and been underwhelmed with their live presences. As the show approached, though, I read reports from earlier dates, and Michael's new album came out, and indifference mutated towards remorse. At the last moment, I had the inspired idea to kidnap the babysitter of one of my co-workers, leaving his wife with no choice but to stay home with their children, him scrambling to find another Aimee Mann fan to take her ticket, and me willing, after a moment of feigned indecision, to help him out of his unfortunate predicament.
What the Ticketmaster listing didn't explain, but I knew from the advance reports, was that the show wasn't one of them opening for the other one, it was really the two of them together. There's good logic to this pairing, given the stylistic similarities between their new albums, even if you don't realize that a) the two records have substantial personnel overlap, including each of them playing on both, and b) this is not coincidental, as Michael and Aimee are now actually married to each other. The five-piece band for the show consisted of Michael's long-time collaborator Patrick Warren playing keyboards, Aimee's long-time accomplice Buddy Judge on guitar, some drummer whose name I didn't catch behind them, and then Aimee and Michael. They started with two or three of her songs, Aimee singing and playing acoustic guitar while Michael played bass and sang backup, then they swapped instruments and she played bass and sang harmony on two or three of his, and so on. After the first song Aimee explained that neither she nor Michael were any good at between-song banter, so for the rest of the night it was provided by stand-up comic Paul F. Tompkins, alternately impersonating, in the loosest possible sense, one or the other of them. The combination was among the most charming and playful things I've seen in a concert, and that includes many musicians whose music is intrinsically a lot more playful than Aimee or Michael's. And though I realize I'm conflating Aimee with her narrators, seeing her real-life husband playing and singing on her most caustic broken-relationship odes changed them dramatically for me. They did "Voices Carry" as an encore, and I think it was only supposed to be a throwaway joke when Michael, who'd been skulking in the background for most of it, suddenly hopped to the microphone to deliver the angry boyfriend's condescending "This little hobby of yours..." voiceover from the old video, but for a second either the video was real, or this show was a story, and in the end the girl in the video had found the supportive lover she needed, and thus there's hope for us all.
The other important thing about the show was that they were selling Aimee's new album, Bachelor No. 2, at the merchandise table. It's done, and due out soon, but Aimee is releasing it herself, after her well-documented label traumas, and as I write I've yet to see it in a store, real or virtual. I didn't expect that much from it, frankly, since more than half of its thirteen songs have already appeared on either the Magnolia soundtrack, the preview EP she was selling on her web site for a while, or both, and neither of those discs had made much of an impression on me. But either I wasn't paying attention, or I needed the concert to adjust my frame of mind, or it took a whole album for these songs to gain critical mass, because here in their final assemblage I'm finding them completely captivating. The record breaks no particular ground, and arguably Aimee has never broken any ground, she's just been incrementally refining the same general neo-traditionalist pop-craftsman's approach that has characterized, in varying degrees, everything she's done since she took over the songwriting responsibilities halfway through 'til tuesday's three-album run. If anything, these songs are less acidic and more grown-up than the ones on I'm With Stupid, which may or may not seem, in the abstract, like it ought to be an improvement. I've had a bad habit of forgetting how much I like Aimee's records, a habit that I haven't been able to overcome by noticing it, so I'd be foolish to insist that this time will be different, that this is finally the Aimee Mann album I won't come to take for granted. But OK, if that's foolish, I'll be foolish. It doesn't hurt much to be wrong. Maybe I'll escape this album's spell, after all, but I don't expect to, and I'm not trying to, and I don't want to. It's an underappreciated form Aimee has been perfecting, but I've just decided that it's a different underappreciated form from the one I'd been thinking. As this album unfolds, I find myself paying less attention to the shapes of the melodies, which still place Aimee in the meticulous Anglophilic tradition of Squeeze, Jellyfish, Del Amitri and Crowded House, and more to her emotional poise, to these songs' graceful, articulate and unapologetic maturity, which suggests that her real peers, for me, are Beth Nielsen Chapman and Sarah McLachlan, or Patty Larkin and Richard Shindell. Empathy has caught up with her.
Or maybe it's only caught up with me, but how would I tell? "How Am I Different?" is a trenchant farewell for a break-up before the relationship even begins, as if acknowledging it is already the death knell, but I don't hear it as a parting shot. "When you fuck it up later / Do I get my money back?", she asks, but fond "Baker Street"-esque guitar hooks curl around the question, and it seems to me that she isn't actually saying goodbye, she's just reminding us how big an investment staying represents. The calliope hymn "Nothing Is Good Enough" issues the same warning to the other person, demanding that he recognize the pattern she doesn't intend to be part of. The swelling "Red Vines", with a Judge drum-machine loop like a steam engine built of spider-webs, is a lullaby and a promise, and anybody who will watch you sleep can probably be trusted. "The Fall of the World's Own Optimist", written with Elvis Costello, swoops like the two of them were goading each other to expansiveness, and I take "the eggshells I've been treading / Couldn't spare me a beheading" to be a succinct admission that relationship cynicism, however justified, doesn't help. "Satellite" is one of Aimee's own, but it spins and sighs as grandly as Costello and Bacharach's "God Give Me Strength", and again I don't believe for a second that the narrator means to abandon the subject to the fate she thinks he's drifting towards. The inexorable "Deathly", with diaphanous backing vocals from Juliana Hatfield, confronts the dichotomy between injunctions and desires most directly, begging the subject not to do the one thing that the narrator most plainly needs. In one of several unconventional uses of Aimee's music in Magnolia, this song not only plays in the background, but the critical opening lines ("Now that I've met you / Would you object to / Never seeing each other again?") are also spoken as dialogue by one of the characters, in a subplot that may well have been constructed for the sole purpose of setting up that scene. And if it makes any sense to let the film inform the song, in return, then the guilelessness of the man she's trying to scare off renders "So don't work your stuff" absurd, and you'll rarely get a more plaintive invitation than an admonition not to do something of which you're clearly incapable.
And at this point, as if realizing that the suite of love-songs disguised as kiss-offs has reached the end of the idea's extrapolation, Aimee lets it go, and the rest of the record turns to other characters and other stories. The springy, rousing "Ghost World", with some guest guitar by Jen Trynin and Aimee's voice rising above its usual confessional whisper, is a stranded high-school graduate's artless assessment of crossroads and confusion. "Calling It Quits" is a relatively undisguised farewell to major-label life, but Mark Flannagan's trumpet fusillades buoy the chorus towards the triumphant resignation of Hepburn's "I Quit", and elsewhere muted keyboards, cherubic backing choirs, half-stops and abrupt shifts in intimacy contribute to the album's most adventurous arrangement. The slow waltz "Driving Sideways" (not to be confused with Aimee's earlier song "Driving With One Hand on the Wheel", nor Del Amitri's comparably rueful "Driving With the Breaks On") could have been another relationship autopsy, but Aimee extracts herself from the story, much the same way Justin Currie might have, and sings it as a warning to somebody else. The hushed ballad "Just Like Anyone", with Warren's accordion, Michael Panes' violin and Aimee's acoustic guitar and bass, is barely longer than a minute, but it serves as a segue to "Susan", to me the album's most uncluttered pop song, something like a cross between Liz Phair and Matthew Sweet that ends up sounding more than a little like the Kennedys. A broken relationship lies at the heart of this story, too, but Aimee disarms it by addressing the song to a friend who knew better all along. Aimee and Jon Brion's "It Takes All Kinds" is distracted and dreamy, and the glassy sheen carries through to the Sarah McLachlan-ish sonic composure of "You Do", the finale, but Aimee refuses to grant the song the solemnity Sarah would have cultivated, and the hint of skepticism in her instruction that "you've only got to love him more" is to me the soul of the whole album, reprised in an instant. We expend an enormous amount of energy trying to decide what to do next, in our lives, but the next step is almost always obvious: it's the one thing you fear most, the comfort you have to escape or the hopeless impossibility you have to commit yourself to with all your heart. You defeat it by defeating it, or you defeat it by embracing it, but either way you win.
Aimee Mann: Magnolia (soundtrack)
With nine Aimee Mann songs on it, the soundtrack to Magnolia looks substantial enough, but this turns out to be misleading. "Deathy", "Driving Sideways" and "You Do" are all on Bachelor No. 2, as is the finished version of "Nothing Is Good Enough" (included here as an instrumental). The fifth song is an old cover of Harry Nilsson's "One". Three of the remaining four songs are also scraps from various points in Aimee's past: the cartoonish "Momentum" was one of the b-sides to the single for "That's Just What You Are", "Build That Wall" is a 'til tuesday leftover done no favors by quasi-muzak instrumentation, and "Wise Up" is a haunting song whose central role in Magnolia (for its length the movie essentially becomes a music video, with the characters taking turns singing along) would make it an obvious Oscar choice except that it already used up its eligibility by appearing in Jerry Maguire, four years ago. The nomination must thus go, instead, to "Save Me", the only new song that belongs exclusively to the soundtrack. I'd be more impressed if I thought it was a sacrifice to leave "Save Me" off of Bachelor No. 2, but it seems to me like it evokes the same mood as "It Takes All Kinds" and "You Do", and that the album didn't need three songs like that, in which case it only ended up here by elimination. Completists will still want this, of course, but I'm pretty sure anybody else would be happier with her real album. Among other virtues, Bachelor No. 2 does not suffer from somebody's bizarre compulsion to fill up the blank CD space, after Aimee's songs are done, with two twenty-year-old Supertramp singles ("Goodbye Stranger" and "Logical Song"), a disposable dance-pop trifle ("Dreams", by Gabrielle, which seems even more random to me here than it did in the movie), and a short section from the film's orchestral score that sounds, inexplicably, like an homage to The Nutcracker Suite. I can only assume that the compilers had fond childhood memories of listening to short albums that had been taped over longer ones.
Michael Penn: MP4
If musical compatibility maps to personal compatibility, then it's easy to see why Aimee and Michael were drawn to one another. I thought that they could have swapped the music for I'm With Stupid and Resigned without anybody other than their bands catching on, and now that their bands are the same, and Aimee and Michael live together, I'm not sure even Warren and Judge can be sure that Aimee and Michael didn't simply write all these songs together, and then allocate them to one album or the other by coin flips. Michael is less patient than Aimee, and sings at a higher base energy level, so MP4 seems slightly more upbeat than Bachelor No. 2, to me, but I'm exactly as impressed by the improvement in pop songcraft on Michael's album as on Aimee's. They didn't betray any trace of competitive tension in concert, but I have a feeling that a shared understanding of the characteristics of the elusive perfect pop song underlies both projects, and that both writers know exactly how close the other one has come. "Lucky One", MP4's opening, tries bright, ringing piano, tumbling drums, late-Beatles phrase-shifts and the candy-coated refrain "I must be the lucky one, / The luckiest in Luckydom". "Whole Truth" is more muted, with echoes of March's "Battle Room", but "High Time", with its booming kick/snare pulse, decisive two- and three-chord guitar hooks and circling "shoo-be-bop" harmonies, strides along like Michael has spent a decade determining every subtle thing that held "No Myth" back from world domination. Musically, "Beautiful" is Aimee all the way through, but Michael prefers rhyme schemes that cycle twice as fast as Aimee's, and Aimee would never sing "You've run out of holy water, dude". A hint of acoustic blues creeps into the verses of the pensive "Footdown", but the choruses are dense and blaring, as if the band is trying to play like a large composite tuba. Warren's keyboards shimmer though "Perfect Candidate", the drum loops pursue their own systematic lines of reasoning, and there's an oddly groovy coda at the end, but the bridges are pure Beatles throwbacks. "Don't Let Me Go" begins with faked LP surface-noise and clipped acoustic guitar feints, but arches into pealing electric-guitar and Penn's fervent chorus plea. "Out of Its Misery" seems to me like Michael's answer to Aimee's "Susan", muscular and galloping, parts Matthew Sweet, Tommy Keene and Peter Holsapple. The sinuous "Trampoline" could be Penn's attempt to prove that Aimee won't ever need Jon Brion or Jules Shear again. And "Bucket Brigade" is a gentle, humming conclusion, Michael moving closer to the microphone and risking Aimee's vulnerability. That's what I'd fear most, if I were him: the more you take away from Aimee's songs, the better they usually get, but I don't think that's as true for Michael's. If they decided tomorrow to become folk musicians, I suspect Aimee is ready. Michael still needs the whir of keyboards, and the click of drum machines. Remove them, and there would be holes in these songs. What's hard to know, though, until Michael decides to find out, is whether the holes are the kind through which manna is collected, or the kind through which it drains away. The next tour, I want to see them be the band, just the two of them. The designated banterer was a clever touch, but I want to hear their own explanations, however halting. I want to hear how hard it is, even for them, to distinguish their faith in music from their faith in each other. I want to believe that you can hand someone a song, and in doing so hand them yourself. I want to believe that art doesn't define solipsism, it defies it. Something has to.