No fair lady

Singer/songwriter Aimee Mann has no problem with snagging an Oscar nomination. Just don’t try and make her wear a fancy gown to the ceremony.

Mann — who first registered on the rock radar in the mid-’80s as the impossibly blonde, perpetually morose lead singer for Boston-based New Wave group ‘Til Tuesday (remember MTV’s obsessive airing of the group’s big hit, “Voices Carry”?) — faced a wardrobe challenge in 2000 when she was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her work on the soundtrack of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s opus, Magnolia. (Anderson, a longtime fan of Mann’s, actually wrote Magnolia around her songs, much in the way books are often adapted to film.)

Notoriously not a slave to mainstream ideals of feminine apparel, Mann was flummoxed by what to wear to the lavish ceremonies — particularly because she had also been asked to perform at the Oscar telecast. (She did “Save Me,” nominated for Best Song.)

“The Oscar experience was surreal and also kind of stressful because you immediately think, ‘What the hell am I going to wear?'” Mann recently related in a phone interview from her Los Angeles home.

“Especially, what the hell am I going to wear?” she elaborates. “When I went to the Golden Globes, I borrowed this long gown. Designers, when they hear you’re going to an awards ceremony, will send you things … you know, from Mr. Armani and such.” A faint snort is audible at this point.

“So I wore this long gown,” she continues, “and it had this tail that kind of dragged, and people kept stepping on it. It was awful and really uncomfortable.”

This scenario isn’t so hard to imagine: There is something of the prom-queen-on-downers in Mann’s very essence.

She wore pants, by the way, for her Oscar performance. “But I hired a stylist to help me find a really beautiful top so I wouldn’t look like a complete dork,” she notes cheerfully.

Her look was fine, but her problems weren’t over.

“I had a dressing room at the Oscars, but I didn’t know there was a green room where the stars hang out,” Mann recalls. “Apparently, my band members were hobnobbing with Kevin Spacey and stuff, while I was sitting in my dressing room going, ‘Where are all the celebrities?'” (Mann is likely a little more celebrity-savvy than she lets on: Her husband is singer/songwriter Michael Penn, brother of actor Sean.)

While the Magnolia soundtrack placed Mann more firmly in the center of the American musical map, her latest solo release, Lost in Space (SuperEgo, 2002), is arguably her best work to date.

The record is transcendentally gorgeous, the handiwork of an artist at the peak of her talents. It’s a literate, variegated work by turns polished and raw, lush and stark, but always etched with an emotional and musical purity, in no small part driven by Mann’s excellent band’s multi-layered pop/rock/power-folk prowess.

Lost in Space is bittersweet and melancholy, yet marked by the crisp alt-pop sensibility that is Mann’s trademark — one clever music writer defined her oeuvre as “catchy despair.” The disc encompasses the dark themes the singer/songwriter is known for: alienation, addiction (to substances and people: “Let me be your heroin/ Hate the sinner but love the sin,” she sings on “High on Sunday 51″), isolation, jaded romantic notions and miserably failed relationships.

Another critic wrote of the disc: “I have never done heroin in my life. But my first reaction after listening to Aimee’s latest … was a desire to check myself into rehab out of sheer sympathy pains.”

Mann insists, however, that her less-than-cheerful subject matter doesn’t spring from a place of depression — and it’s not even particularly autobiographical.

“I don’t know what the factors are that cause me to create a particular song, but being really depressed is not one of them,” she reveals. “Depression basically shuts you down. It’s more that you have to be really connected to how you feel about things, because then you can be connected to how other people feel, and [how] you feel about other people.

“I don’t think any of my songs is totally personal,” she stresses. “What I strive for is an emotional context that is very truthful, then [I add] whatever details need to be invented, or whatever story needs to be created around those emotions.

“That’s how I work,” Mann says.

So how does she compare Lost in Space to her previous three solo outings?

“It’s sort of more underground,” she observes. “It’s darker because of … themes of people acting out of their subconscious.”

The first record, Whatever (Imago, 1993), had a definite Beatles and Byrds feel, Mann notes. The second album, I’m With Stupid (Geffen, 1996), was more rock ‘n’ roll, while the third, Bachelor No. 2 (SuperEgo, 2000), was in the Burt Bacharach vein.

“I’m not really sure what this one is,” Mann adds. “I think you need to get some distance [from] a work before you can really assign a particular flavor to it.”

Mann-ing the wheels

For Mann, releasing Bachelor No. 2 and Lost in Space on her own SuperEgo label is a particularly sweet victory. She’s learned the hard way to be a savvy businesswoman in an industry that often eats its young.

A series of well-publicized record-label imbroglios have dogged Mann from her first forays as a solo artist. In 1992, following the demise of ‘Til Tuesday, she entered a recording contract with Imago Records; the following year she released Whatever, a guitar-pop tour de force that featured such heavy-hitter guests as ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn.

Whatever was more upbeat than works to come, and Mann’s edgy, elegant soprano and biting wit made her an instant indie-pop darling. However, Imago went broke and was subsumed by the giant Geffen Records, on which Mann released her sophomore effort, I’m With Stupid, a more bitter and world-weary affair.

Geffen was in turn taken over by the even-more-gigantic Universal Records. A series of contract disputes and creative stand-offs (according to Mann, both Geffen and Universal pushed her to release more radio-friendly fare, among other demands) marred Mann’s efforts to release her third effort, Bachelor No. 2. In 2000, Mann formed SuperEgo, bought back the masters for Bachelor and released and distributed the highly successful disc herself.

Climaxing the ongoing disputes, Mann filed an $8 million lawsuit against Universal two years ago. In the wake of her Oscar nomination and her increased popularity on the coattails of Magnolia, the company had released The Aimee Mann Ultimate Collection. Among a litany of other contractual breaches named in her lawsuit, the record included songs from masters Mann had never meant to be released. Further, Mann was in no way involved in the project, and was, in fact, banned from participation in it.

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