photo by Sheryl Nields
Only Aimee Mann could believably sing the word “chanticleer.” That rare synonym for a rooster crops up in Track 9 of her most recent album, last year’s The Forgotten Arm.
In her unmistakable, ice-pick soprano, Mann can make even the most foolishly decorative word sound preordained. However, in its few negative reviews, Forgotten Arm (Superego Records) was more often denounced for being uncharacteristically simplistic. A concept album set in the ‘70s, it narrates the predictably rocky romance of “John” – a drug-addicted, retired boxer trying to forget Vietnam and other failures – and fellow small-town desperado “Caroline.” Pop critic Jim DeRogatis dismissed the narrative as “sound[ing] like a Lifetime Channel combination of Leaving Las Vegas and Rebel Without a Cause.”
Point taken. Except that Forgotten Arm, born out of Mann’s own interest in boxing and friends met in that arena, is based on a real person’s story, not a Hollywood script.
Yes, it’s plainer: Although unlikely chord changes and a Beatles-esque, minor-key melodic swell are still Mann hallmarks, Forgotten Arm lacks the studied technical wizardry that made her last effort, 2002’s Lost in Space, such a cold, starry coup. The singer recorded the new disc live and is touring it in a stripped-down acoustic setting. And, as she admits in a recent phone interview from L.A., writing a concept album is “much easier … in that it provides a structure [first] – then you can fit your ideas into that.”
More interestingly, though, the record – if simpler in every way – fills in its own cracks with raw feeling. For the writer of such frostily iconic gems as “Save Me” and “Deathly,” the poignant heights (or rather depths) Mann accesses on Forgotten Arm nudge her into a new category of emotional heavyweights. Listeners unmoved by the soaring hurt in “That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart” should probably flick the dust off their own blood-pumpers. And you need only have known useless love, not a useless addict, to recognize the sick hope expressed in the distinctly Elton John-ish “Clean Up for Christmas”: “I was thinking I could clean up for Christmas/ Then call it a day/ Tell you I’m sorry that I made you a witness/ To my moral decay/ And that, once upon a time,/ I thought it was a victimless crime.”
Asked about this, Mann gives only slightly. She will concede that the immediacy of Forgotten Arm‘s songs “lend themselves more to a live setting,” though she adds that “it’s hard to say whether these songs are more emotional; I thought Lost in Space had some pretty raw songs, too.” Her reticence is fitting, since the impetus for Forgotten Arm flowered from an old stance of defiance.
“When I was a kid growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I had a lot of different interests,” Mann remembers. “But back then, people had strict ideas about what women should and shouldn’t be doing – including in music: You know, girls couldn’t play guitar; that kind of attitude.” The singer says she also found herself discouraged from learning traditionally masculine sports.
“Every year when we went to the beach, I wanted to learn how to surf, but I found a huge amount of opposition to ideas that I had.” But times, she admits, “have radically changed.” Introduced a few years ago to boxing, Mann had no one to stop her from taking lessons in what she calls “a fascinating sport.”
Now, she says, “circumstances are different. I can do what I want.”
That a hobby turned into her latest album is no surprise to the singer. “If there’s something I’m interested in, I’m really interested in it. I’m the sort of writer who is more rewarded by exploring one topic than in trying to come up with scenarios that have nothing to do with each other.
“I’m not someone who has a lot of different, fleeting interests – it’s all or nothing for me.”
Ditto for her characters. Forgotten Arm is largely John’s story, and within most songs, Mann’s trademark wit eventually yields the lead to the boxer’s voice. In “Video,” Mann/John muses that “Like a building that’s been slated for blasting/ I’m the proof that nothing is lasting/ Counting to eleven as it collapses.” But the poetry appropriately self-destructs in the song’s last lines, which merely repeat, over and over, “Baby, baby, why do I feel so bad?/ Baby, I love you/ But baby, I feel so bad.” They’re not the sort of lyrics Magnolia fans would stay up for. However, adopting the attitude so pervasive in her earlier songs, Mann remains crisply unapologetic.
The singer says she “learned a lot about drug addiction” from her friendship with the boxer who inspired John. “I saw him go through a couple relapses, and I saw how that affected people around him.
“Addiction,” she says, “it its own world. And if you’re not in it, then you just don’t get it.”
Aimee Mann plays an acoustic show at the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) on Sunday, Feb. 12, with Chuck Prophet. 8:30 p.m. $25 ($22.50/advance). 225-5851.