When contemplating the potential for disaster when recording her fifth solo album, The Forgotten Arm, Aimee Mann must have channeled her inner bantamweight, bounced off the ropes and kept swinging through a dodgy, stubborn opponent. Though she had a few songs written before her vision was clear, she knocked out a concept album that pretentious (and frequently fatal) dream of most singer-songwriters about a Vietnam vet, boxing, dead-end living and the near-cliché of the wide-open American road trip. (And there's a love triangle, too, in which one of the key players is addiction.)
Mann worked quickly and efficiently, but she didn't sacrifice the velvety lyrical pop that has been her signature since the Grammy-nominated breakthrough recordings that inspired (rather than were inspired by) the 1999 Paul Thomas Anderson film, Magnolia. But if her work on the Magnolia soundtrack fully freed her from one-hit-wonder status, the distinct contours of Mann's signature are two decades in the making. With a spastic shock of hair and the paranoid new-wave single "Voices Carry," Mann and her band 'Til Tuesday surfaced on the pop radar in 1985. After peaking on the charts at No. 19 with their debut album (also called Voices Carry), they released two more albums before calling it quits in 1989.
The sound of last year's The Forgotten Arm reflects the 45-year-old singer's recent obsession with the cyclical Americana of Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection and the autobiographical bohemia of Rod Stewart's Every Picture Tells a Story. Pianos dream up melodies, guitars purr and then lash out unexpectedly against the acoustic confines, while the rhythm section sounds like an ad-lib dialogue between friends who grew up together. With Arm Mann fully reimagines the style and song-form of the post-Carole King songstress, in part by returning to the melodicism and introspection of King and Joni Mitchell. Fiona Apple, Cat Power and Beth Orton owe Mann's punchy, tender drive which feeds and feeds off of her love of boxing more than they know.
"I'm not one of those people who sits down at eight o'clock in the morning with a notepad and a guitar and gets to work," Mann says. "A month can go by without working on songs. I have a work ethic for different things. I have time off from touring, and what I'm working on is going to the gym and getting in shape, working with my boxing trainer. When I'm on the road, I can't do that. It's hard to stay in shape on the road."
Mann chose to record her intricate vignettes live, with new producer Joe Henry and a (mostly) new cast of musicians. Henry who has been on a roll, having revived veterans such as Mavis Staples, Irma Thomas and Bettye LaVette and produced records for Ani DiFranco and Susan Tedeschi allowed Mann to explore some of the Southern soul of her Virginia roots and also clarify her meticulous songwriting.
"From the artist standpoint, he knows what I look for," she says. "He's a musician, so he knows what good songs are. If I have questions about songs, he's a good proofreader. He's good at casting the record, putting musicians together who will play well together. I have a lot of confidence in him; I wanted to just let the musicians play, so there weren't a lot of takes.
"He's really good at getting off of a song before you're sick of it. If I play a song four times in a row, I get sick of it. Joe works really fast, and he's funny, smart and keeps the atmosphere light and fun. He's a snappy dresser, just a joy to be around."
Like her previous two solo albums, Bachelor No. 2 and Lost in Space, Mann's new record was released on her own label, SuperEgo, which she formed with her manager (and 'Til Tuesday drummer) Michael Hausman after swallowing all the major-label misdirection she could. Mann lets Hausman handle most of the business, but she finds label independence hopeful and demystifying.
"In general, what you learn is that it's not rocket science, it's not that difficult," she says. "If you're on a major and it's not happening, with someone like me who has a built-in audience, it's because they're not really doing anything. There's just basic legwork that has to happen, like get the record in stores. It was a little shocking. Being on a major label, they make it seem like it's magic. And it makes you realize how, if you're not a priority, how little they will do and how easily you'll get passed over."
For all the narrative ambitions of Arm, Mann's lyrics play with language especially internal and end-line rhymes ("ballast" and "Alice," "lapses" and "collapses," "bombs" and "pom-poms," "chanticleer" and "terrible fear") in ways that cut most emcees.
"I'm not a hip-hop listener, but I admire those rhyme-schemes," Mann admits. "I think about rhymes a lot. As a listener the more exact the rhymes are, the more satisfying it is. 'Ballast' and 'Alice' don't perfectly rhyme, but I like to get them as exact as possible. It's kind of like ear candy, and it locks the idea in a different way."
Inside the narrative turns and twists, the boxing-like dance of characters who need each other but need freedom even more Arm reveals the same obsessions that have dominated Mann's post-Magnolia work: the painful risks of personal and artistic choices, and the inevitability of loving while not even remotely knowing how to love.
"Like most writers," she explains, "I have underlying themes that crop up over and over again. That's definitely a feeling I've gotten from a lot of people. It's difficult for them to know their own feelings, and they spend a lot of time running away from it, because it can be too hard to feel it." Aimee Mann at the Pageant, 6161 Delmar Boulevard. Show starts at 8 p.m. Tuesday, January 31. Tickets are $25; call 314-726-6161 for more information.