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Only connect
Aimee Mann reaches out on The Forgotten Arm
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Aimee Mann's official Web site

Aimee Mannís voice, though limited, has always been able to wring the maximum emotion out of a lyric with a seeming minimum effort. Itís not so much what she sings as how she sings it. So her songs, invariably about relationships in trouble, affect listeners in ways that vocalists possessed of greater range and dexterity ó your average multi-octave American Idol, say ó often donít. She wraps herself around a phrase like a thread tightly wound around a finger, squeezing new meaning out of even simple single-syllable rhymes like "road"/"load."

But with Mann, to paraphrase the Stones, itís not only the singer, itís the song. Her literate lyrics rival peak-period Elvis Costello, minus the puns and the overt cleverness. And her melodies tap into the vein once mined by Squeeze and XTC ó back when they mattered. Her catalogue is fat with unforgettable hooks and vivid images; think of "4th of July," from her benchmark 1993 album Whatever (Imago), with its "Todayís the Fourth of July/Another June has gone by/And when they light up our town I just think/What a waste of gunpowder and sky."

All this hasnít gone unnoticed: sheís received critical accolades, and she even got an Academy Award nomination for "Save Me," from the Magnolia soundtrack. Yet her commercial success, at least since her "Voices Carry" íTil Tuesday days, has been modest. Thatís the price an artist pays when easy-on-the-ear melodies are not all that emotionally easy to get through. Her well-documented run-ins with record labels led to the creation of her own SuperEgo imprint. Her new The Forgotten Arm chronicles a relationship between a drug addict named Caroline and a Vietnam vet named John who meet, fall in love, and then fall apart while traveling across the lonely byways of 1970s America. Itís not the headiest of concepts, but it does allow her to get under the skin of dispossessed folks whose lives are anything but a dream come true. On the gnarly "Goodbye Caroline," our heroine is told, "Put on your shoes, girl/Iím goiní to the Coast/Where every loser/Gives up what hurts the most." The following track, "Going Through the Motions," has Caroline responding, "Feel like Iím in jail/With you and Mr. Hyde/A guy who leaves a trail/About a mile wide."

These are desperate characters going down a dangerous path, giving up one addiction for another, and yet their dark and ugly dealings are set against some of Mannís most upbeat music. Sheís said that she was going after a bright and loose í70s vibe, and thatís what she and producer Joe Henry achieve. Punchy drums, thrumming bass lines, and grinding guitars give this disc a loose liveliness quite different from the clean, tight arrangements of earlier albums. Perhaps thatís because Mann and Henry knocked the album out in just five days and with few overdubs. A West Coast ambiance keeps the overall mood from seeming too dark, much the way Fleetwood Macís Rumors and Randy Newmanís Little Criminals benefitted from sunlit production touches. But scratch beneath the surface and youíll find harsh realities. On the closing "Beautiful," an anguished Mann trills, "Why does it hurt me/To feel so much tenderness?" Often, we learn from The Forgotten Arm, making human connections is the hardest part of life.

Aimee Mann performs on Thursday June 9 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1 Hamilton Place in Boston; call (617) 931-2000.

Issue Date: May 20 - 26, 2005
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