Aimee Mann
The Forgotten Arm


It's quite unlikely that at the time of 'Til Tuesday's (only) mega-hit, Voices Carry, about twenty years ago, many could have imagined a future when Aimee Mann - the voice and the face of the US group - would be lauded as the writer of a thick catalogue of songs that are easy on the ear but at the same time of a very high quality, as it's customarily true of "quality pop". A young MTV desperately in need of new faces had welcomed 'Til Tuesday - and Aimee Mann, the group's main asset - with open arms, their sound - more English- than American-based - being decidedly au courant with the latest "new wave" trends. Maybe one year had passed when I caught the group on an Italian TV network, miming their new "hit", What About Love, smoke and all. While the new song was not much different from what I already knew, I was a bit surprised by the singer's look: "punk" combat boots, about 6' tall, she was playing a Fender Precision (with a pick) with svelte assurance. As it often happens, while the group's records became better, their sales nosedived, and their record company didn't renew their contract. End of the story.

So it was totally unexpected when the albums titled Whatever (1993) and I'm With Stupid ('95) revealed a singer-songwriter talking in a fresh and modern language, bearing influences both "modern" (the best of "new UK": Costello, XTC, Squeeze) and "classic" (above all, Beatles and Bacharach). One was left impressed by a love for the well-crafted song; by a versatile voice that chose not to emphasize feelings; and by hyper-analytical lyrics that sometimes resembled those penned by Joni Mitchell, and that often travelled a collision course with the melodies. To put it in a nutshell: a sure recipe for huge success! It's well known, in fact, that it's at this point that the artist's relationship with record companies went very wrong, with distribution problems, commercial pressures and the like.

The Magnolia soundtrack ('99) made Aimee Mann somewhat of a celebrity; she founded a tiny independent label and had nice commercial results with the very good album Bachelor No. 2, which could be considered the artistic summa of what she had composed up to that point: a quite varied album, nice arrangements, excellent vocals and also some good songs written "in character" - for instance, check Ghost World, which perfectly represents the strip, and a movie that was still to be shot. Those are "adult" songs - a quality that's nowadays the kiss of death for any commercial hope (besides, I have the feeling that not too many people who have defined Save Me as being a "perfectly crafted light-pop song" have really bothered to listen).

As it was to be expected, at the time when Lost In Space was released (2002) the tiny hype originated by her being nominated to an Oscar for the Magnolia soundtrack had already vanished. And it goes without saying that the songs by Aimee Mann absolutely lack that "old rags" dimension that's so typical of a lot of "indie" productions. A pity, really, since the album (quite varied, but also denser and less entertaining than its predecessor) is maybe the best she has released to date: a dark, musically layered album that (fortunately!) has yet to be defined as "a toxic masterpiece" and the like (let's see who'll be the first to talk about "the rediscovery of a misunderstood masterpiece").

And now we have a new album, The Forgotten Arm. Its release was anticipated by some comments according to which the album's main influences (it's a "concept album", by the way) were people like Elton John, The Band and Rod Stewart. The production by Joe Henry was said to add the right amount of "real American sound". To tell the truth, in a brief exchange with (UK) Mojo, Aimee Man mentioned a specific album by each of the aforementioned names - Tumbleweed Connection, Music From Big Pink and Every Picture Tells A Story - as examples of albums recorded with just a few instruments played more or less live in the studio - as opposed to the "layered" approach privileged by, say, The Beatles (whose influence is practically absent on the new album).

Guitars, electric bass, drums and keyboards - mostly piano, and an organ which to me sounded like a (good) digital version of a real Hammond - and a full, live sound: this is the sound dimension (which at first left me quite puzzled) of The Forgotten Arm. An "early 70s" sound for a story that's said to be set in those days. Here it's up to each one of us: those who considered the sound of Lost In Space as being too cold, too tiny, too analytical and too layered will like the new one more; on the contrary, those who consider a "full, big" rock sound as being of a long-passed era (and more appropriate to Bruce Springsteen's albums) will not be happy for the present choice. I'd really like to know about the reactions of those whose horizons are framed by Coldplay on one side and 50 Cent on the other.

Of course, we can find similarities - just listen to the almost-Stax dimension of the beautiful ballad titled King Of The Jailhouse, with horns; The Band is quoted here and there, with a vibrant organ (and also Dylan, of course, and Like A Rolling Stone); there's also Bacharach - with quite bizarre results, since the name of the song is I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up For Christmas; but for every track, after just a few seconds it's quite easy to get who we are listening to. My main problem with the first six tracks was that the group sound and the arrangements appear to flatten everything, giving a sameness to a writing that's not necessarily the most varied in the world and that in the past had greatly benefited from an "artificial" and "tailored" production style. To me the album seemed to get better while the story became more desperate - the songs get sadder, the arrangements sparser: Video, Little Bombs, That's How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart, I Can't Help You Anymore, the aforementioned I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up For Christmas and the closing Beautiful could be easily included on a Mann's "Best Of". Whether this is enough is for each of us to decide.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2005 | May 24, 2005