Sunday, May 15, 2005

Aimee Mann and F. Scott Fitzgerald

Aimee Mann has always been one of my favorite songwriters, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that she is also far better read than I am. I got a chance to talk to her about a month ago for a long feature piece in the summer issue of Playlist, an iPod oriented magazine from the people behind MacWorld. Her new disc, The Forgotten Arm, is, as usual, fantastic, although I'm worried that the idea of it being a concept album might needlessly scare people away.

While the Playlist piece is more about musical craft and technology, today I review the disc on the book page of The Westchester Journal News. They aren't posting my contributions on their website lately, so you have to buy the paper to get whole thing, but here are a few excerpts.

"With her just released disc “The Forgotten Arm” Mann pushes into new territory, stripping things down on the production end, and setting up the twelve song cycle as a “novella in stories.” As a package, everything is gorgeous and gritty, much like the music contained inside. You won’t find Mann’s image on the front cover, which instead features two men boxing in a ruddy-hued drawing reminiscent of an old dime store novel. Inside, the lyrics are reprinted in an elaborate, illustrated chapter book. “If I expect people to buy it,” Mann says, “ I don’t want them to have to deal with a crappy jewel box.” And since founding Untied Musicians with husband Michael Penn and manager Michael Hausman, she can deliver her music to fans in exactly the format she wants...

“F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Mann admits when asked about literary influences. "The Basil and Josephine Stories . Those stories are connected through character, but there isn’t a cohesive plot line that comes through the whole thing. Also, Pat Hobby Stories.” But don’t expect Mann to ever write a book. “It’s a skill,” she says with a degree of awe. “To impart information in a certain way with a certain style that’s invisible. I’ve known people who write fantastic letters that are cohesive and entertaining and then they try their hand at fiction and it all falls apart. I can’t even write an email. It’s too hard, putting paragraphs together. I don’t know how people do it. My mind works best in the three-minute form. I’m good at boiling stories down to short sentences, but I’m really bad at expanding them beyond that point.”

The influence may be Fitzgerald, but the effect is more like the late Raymond Carver on songs like “I Can’t Get My Head Around It” and “I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up For Christmas,” in which John first confesses his skepticism about love and twelve-step programs, and later offers to get clean for a few weeks as a parting gift to Caroline. “Four more weeks that couldn’t make any difference,” he says. “Except maybe to you.”

(The whole piece runs 1000 words, so if you want more and live in the NYC area, you can go find it today...)

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