The Forgotten Arm
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.
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.
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).
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
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).
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.
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 2005
CloudsandClocks.net | May 24, 2005