Aimee Mann's complex, soaring vocal abilities have been a fixture of American pop since her days in the Boston-based '80s group 'Til Tuesday, best known for the hit "Voices Carry" from their debut, which pulled Mann from behind the retail counter at Boston's record store Newbury Comics and onto the MTV screen. She can truly grab the listener as effectively with a whispered, pretty high note as with a growly phrase of vitriol. In fact, I still pull out my vinyl copy of 'Til Tuesday's second record, Welcome Home, on a semi-regular basis. After a steadily dissatisfying career that included a jump to solo status and declining support from various labels (she was with Geffen when they were a bit more occupied with a little combo called Nirvana), Aimee Mann decided to chuck it all and start from scratch with her own label, SuperEgo, co-founded with former 'Til Tuesday bandmate Michael Hausman. Not a bad move, considering her "critics' darling" status and a small but loyal following who appreciate her combination of confessional, biting lyrics and cutting, emotive vocal capacities.
Lost in Space is Mann's second release on SuperEgo, and it shows a distinct lack of major-label compromise. Not the least evidence of which is the inclusion of a thick booklet of drawings by renowned graphic-novel artist Seth, whose thoughtful, real-dreary-world leanings seem a perfect match for the album's preoccupation with addictions, both chemical and personal.
It's always fun to have some visuals to thumb through while listening to a good album, hearkening back to the golden age of LP record packaging (sigh), where the right combination of pictures and lyrics and notes came close to a multimedia experience. Although some artists still put a great deal of thought into the visuals of the CD package, it's not the norm, and this reviewer certainly appreciates the care that went into creating the Lost in Space booklet and artwork.
As for the music, the opening track, "Humpty Dumpty," lurches to life with a very tasty, vaguely theremin-ish slide guitar riff that echoes the album title. Mann's fragmented, crumpled protagonist, like Mr. Dumpty, can't be put back together again, despite "all the perfect drugs and superheroes." Her voice stays well out in front throughout the record's mix, and the instrumentation is given to steady, soft accents and modest riffage rather than a wall of sound, giving the feeling of even more space.
Bucking the ever-present trend of "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" subject matter that has focused pop radio on the 5-to-13-year-old demographic and older illiterate zombies, Aimee Mann revels in the juxtaposition of bleak lyrical content with extremely hummable melodies. The line "Let me be your heroin" (from "High on Sunday 51") comes with one of these sweet tidbits; the fact that dropping that final "e" in the "h" word changes its definition a full 180 degrees matters little, as long as you take the time to glean her meaning. An interest in abnormal psychology and the subject's set of losers and malcontents informs Lost in Space with recognition of these tired folks, many of whom might be just sick enough of spoon-fed pop culture to actually seek out a record that doesn't condescend and doesn't try to force the artist's own problems down their already lumpy throats. Instead, this is a rare record that simply responds to the quiet masses who maybe feel just a bit to much too often, and offers them a soothing, downbeat source of comfort without preaching or apology. That a woman so in control of her career and apparently happy in her own marriage (to fellow tunesmith Michael Penn) would show compassion to the bummed without bumming them out further is obviously testament to her sense of artist's empathy.
Spare instrumentation doesn't mean boring you'll hear a mandolin strum here, a synth squiggle there, and some all-around marvy production on Lost in Space. Though the album was laid down in dribs and drabs rather than in a mammoth session, the songs still share a similar texture this feels like an album, not simply a collection of songs. Concept album? Eh. Maybe. It's definitely a "mood" listen. I wouldn't throw the record into the vague genre heap of "electro-folk" the beats are analog, and the disc isn't meant to dance to, but rather to sort of sway to, headphones on and with a fresh doctor-prescribed sedative lulling you into a zone of deep breathing. Listen to "Pavlov's Bell," "Real Bad News," and the title track, and let it rain, man. It's just rain.