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At first glance, Aimee Mann's return to the airwaves seems like the final scene in some topsy-turvy Hollywood movie. In the mid-'80s, she became an MTV darling as the platinum-blond frontwoman for 'Til Tuesday. After falling from fave-face status, she beat a just-another-pretty-bass-player rap by releasing a pair of critically adored solo discs in the '90s. But as fate (or Joe Eszterhas and his Tinseltown script-writing peers) would have it, Mann's career then suffered a string of setbacks that involved collapsed record labels and mega-mergers. These woes culminated when her latest then-current label, Interscope, refused to release her third solo outing because it lacked, in their words, "hits." Rather than conform to the company's definition of what was acceptable artistic output, Mann refused to dilute her material. Instead, she bought back her record -- and her independence -- in an artistically liberating, though hardly lucrative, move.
Then, just as the lights seemed to fade for the now-freed but unsung Mann, Boogie Nightsdirector Paul Thomas Anderson happened upon the recording as it languished unreleased; he later credited it with inspiring the sense of melancholy and confusion, as well as some of the characters, in his film Magnolia. Anderson also made Mann's music the soundtrack to the film, which went on to garner critical acclaim and an Academy Award nomination for Best Motion Picture. Mann was also nominated for her efforts: Her song, "Save Me" was nominated as "Best Original Song in a Motion Picture." At the awards ceremony in March, Mann sang the tune as the world watched. The lyrics, "You look like a perfect fit for a girl in need of a tourniquet," seemed to characterize Mann herself just two years prior.
It was a Rocky-style comeback, enough to make you reach for a Kleenex to dab the tears from your eyes. But a look at what's happened since reveals a slightly less Hollywood reality. Today Mann is without a label and hustling her finally released CD, Bachelor No. 2, like so many independent artists across America. Don't you love happy endings?
"It cost me a big chunk of money," Mann says from her home in Southern California, "but it was much more costly to stay in that situation. I left the old system because it wasn't working, and the new setup is working. So I'll ride this train until it stops."
It's hard to figure that Mann would find herself in such a station -- having once attained a level of musical and commercial success enjoyed by relatively few working artists. "Voices Carry," the single from 'Til Tuesday's debut, pushed the release to gold-selling status in 1985. Though the band went on to lose commercial steam on its two subsequent releases, Mann gained respect for her songwriting skills, which occasionally paired her with Elvis Costello, Jules Shear and other heavies. After three years of wrangling with Epic ('Til Tuesday's label), Mann marked her freedom with her first solo effort, 1991's Whatever, a solid collection of insightful pop songs that illuminated her melodic and lyrical gifts. In 1995 she released I'm With Stupid (arguably one of the finest pop-rock recordings of the '90s), which got a major boost when one of its songs, "That's Just What You Are," appeared on a soundtrack from the television show Beverly Hills, 90210. That cut and a couple more from Stupid received radio attention. Music scribes were again raving about Mann's brainy mix of gooey, guitar-driven rockers and tender ballads -- songs that were enhanced by Sgt. Peppery/ Beatlesesque touches and up-to-date studio mastery from Mann and producer Jon Brion.
But when Geffen (which released Stupid) was sold to Interscope, the deal meant trouble for Mann and other artists. "New people come in," Mann says, "and they think the way to make money is to make every artist on the label sound as commercial as possible. Then you're stuck with it, even though when you signed to the label there were a whole different set of numbers expected. The Magnolia soundtrack sold 300,000 units domestically," she adds, "but they don't care about that. If it's not selling at least a million records, they're not interested in it. But that many units is a significant amount of records to me, and if I sell that many, I can actually make a living. And I'm happy to take it."
Mann's first attempts at racking up her own sales totals came in February, when she released Bachelor No. 2 as an Internet-only offering, a well-timed move considering the buzz then circulating around Magnolia. Since May, the disc has been in stores thanks to a distribution deal with RED ("Just like a real record," Mann notes), and it shows that Mann's craft hasn't suffered for her travails. While it trades some of the guitar-crunch and power-pop hooks of Stupid for a softer, Burt Bacharach-ish sound, it features plenty of Mann-style trademarks. She wraps her soft-shelled voice around often-visceral verbal stabs; her lyrics are delivered in a cool fashion that elevates the smart-bomb effect of her couplets. In "How Am I Different," the singer makes it clear she's not falling for any one-man show designed with the bed as the final act. "When you fuck it up later, do I get my money back?" the singer asks. "Red Vines" (Bachelor's single) is a bittersweet pop treasure: a Carpenters-style melody beefed-up by muted crunch and percolating drum loops. "The Fall of the World's Own Optimist" continues Mann's successful collaborations with Elvis Costello, and "Ghost World" is a teen-angst masterpiece hung on irresistible hooks.