Aimee Mann has mastered the art of songwriting to the point her songs sound deceptively casual, as if she’s just experimenting with ideas and hitting upon gems time after time on her new “Charmer.”
The release is a culmination of experience that started in the 1980s, when Mann fronted ’Til Tuesday, and has continued with her solo career that launched with 1993’s “Whatever.” Her understated singing gives voice to smart lyrics that portray her as wry, bittersweet and oddly relaxed, as if she’s resigned, but not defeated. Meanwhile, Mann’s melodies are magnificent, perhaps the most consistent of all active singer-songwriters.
Like her previous work, “Charmer” builds on low-grade infection, with Mann dispensing philosophical zingers in near-offhanded fashion as her subtle hooks slowly but surely embed themselves into the psyche. The arrangements are inviting — timeless, adult pop-rock tinged with scatterings of ‘80s buzz, folk and even a lick or two of country and blues.
For some, “Charmer” will quickly have the appeal of a favorite old album, its comforting strains sounding familiar by the second or third listen.
Through it all, Mann seems to gently shrug off the downsides of life.
She’s pointedly personal at times, singing, “Somehow I would up on your bad side/Till now I guess I had a free ride” on “Disappeared,” comparing herself to a dumbly loyal pet dog on “Labrador,” and summarizing, “I’m as good for you as I can be” on closer “Red Flag Diver.”
Mann seems to step outside of herself, too, noting, “One thing leads to another, and none of it’s good” on “Gamma Ray,” and dispensing curt advice on “Soon Enough”: “So go ahead and say you’re done with it, it’s cool/Baby, you can go whatever way you chose.”
The riskiest cut is a duet with James Mercer of the Shins, as Mann lets an outsider potentially shatter her private little world. However, the two prove simpatico, jointly singing the chorus, “I’m living a lie/You’re living it too/Cause I live it with you.”
Mann might be making a statement with the chugging title track as she observes, “When you’re a charmer, the world applauds/They don’t know that secretly charmers feel like they’re frauds.”
If that’s a paranoid confessional on Mann’s part, she can rest assured she appears to be completely genuine.
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of five)
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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