Lost and Found

Aimee Mann may be Lost in Space, but she has found herself artistically.

When Aimee Mann's latest disc, Lost in Space, dropped last August, many fans of her deep, largely acoustic guitar-driven style were surprised to find lots of its material embellished by distorted electrics, strings and subtle space noise. While not exactly minimalist, much of the stuff that returned the former 'Til Tuesday vocalist to the limelight — her contributions to P.T. Anderson's film Magnolia and critically acclaimed follow-up CD Bachelor No. 2 — had a somewhat spare yet substantial feel. The songwriter affirms that Lost in Space is indeed a step in a different direction, though not an exhaustively plotted one.

"I think you want every record to be different, but I don't think there was a specific plan," says Mann. "My plan was to go in and start recording, and see what you have. If you have a song that kind of works in an interesting way, it sets the tone for the record."

The sounds might have gotten bigger, but the album's overall tone jibes nicely with Mann's inimitable amalgam of intellect and emotion. Those who enjoy her deft juxtaposition of grand, sophisticated hooks and melancholy lyrics found it intact, and in fact even more focused, on Lost in Space. The more ambitious production only enhances the evocative vibe of her most infectious and psychologically probing collection of tracks to date. The disc dwells on loosely linked themes of isolation, addiction and identity, repeatedly approaching and broaching the concept of our being defined by our obsessions from various vectors. Drug references and metaphors for missed connections and debilitating behavior patterns abound, as the songs' characters inspect their own emotional Achilles' heels for evidence of an opportunity to overcome.

"Rockaway Beach" it ain't.

"Once I started writing the songs, there were themes I found really interesting. It was more a matter or letting myself write the songs I felt like writing, and not really worrying about whether they were getting too dark or not," says Mann. "And as a listener, I mean, I like dark, I don't care. You can only be held to a standard of what you yourself would like to listen to."

But Lost in Space is hardly an out-and-out downer. The tunes' marvelous, dynamic arrangements and inherent catchiness provide a hopeful foil to Mann's introspective wordplay, a shining yang to the lyrics' damaged yin.

It's this precarious balance of beauty and despondency that makes the record so engrossing; the album is saturated with the reality of life's natural contradictions. Even the disc's artwork, by acclaimed graphic novelist Seth (Palookaville, It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken), is perfectly suited to its lonelier ruminations. The use of his near-monochromatic visuals and vaguely existential tales is a masterstroke, one that recalls a time when recording artists still considered their album covers an important extension of the music therein.

"He's fantastic, and I think we chose really wisely. He was the right guy for the job," affirms Mann, whose introduction to the world of graphic novels inspired her to write Bachelor No. 2's "Ghost World" after reading the book of the same name. "I'm really fascinated by [Seth's work]. Some of his stuff is dark, and some of his more recent stuff is really sad. His style is more kind of old-timey, but it's sort of melancholy at the same time. His colors are muted and dark, and kind of dirtied up. It's a really nice contrast. And in fact, for me, it's the perfect analogue to pop music, or the kind of pop music I make, with this sort of dark underbelly."

It's the kind of thing a musician signed to a major label might have to fight for, or waste an untold amount of time explaining over and over on up the corporate food chain and waiting for approval. Mann, however, extricated herself from the industry's larger-scale machinations several years ago, in the wake of her frustration with both 'Til Tuesday's handlers and a protracted legal clusterfuck with the now-defunct Imago Records. An outspoken critic of the system and proponent of recording artists' rights, she releases her records on her own SuperEgo label. Along with husband Michael Penn and manager Michael Hausman, she also founded United Musicians (www.unitedmusicians.com), an alliance and resource center whose affiliated independent artists put out their own records, and retain all ownership rights to their work.

Mann admits it can be tough to control all the elements of a career and simultaneously build United Musicians' profile — they've got a record to promote, a tour to undertake. But she maintains that taking her future into her own hands was the right move to make, adding that it was actually not as difficult as some might think.

"It's much more gratifying, and it's not nearly as hard [as it seems]. Every bit of work you ever did on a major label often resulted in someone else benefiting," she says. "Whereas this is artistically satisfying, and ... we actually see a reward for our effort, rather than trying to get the company to do something, and when they do, it benefits them.

"People at record companies think that being able to make a record should be a reward in itself, but that's ridiculous. You have to make a living."

Mann's independence has surely made her renewed presence in the mass consciousness all the more fulfilling. Without the image- oriented trappings, the marketing angles that majors feel they must use to successfully sell pop music, her songwriting is standing just fine on its own. Indeed, when asked if she ever thought she would once again see exposure on a level comparable to that which 'Til Tuesday once received, Mann isn't even interested in relating the two situations.

"The attention that we got in 'Til Tuesday was based on a lot of other things beside the music. Our records got increasingly good, and we got increasingly less attention for it. I thought that was pathetic," she says. "It wasn't about getting better, and it didn't have much to do with whether we made a good record or not.

"That's not really something good to aspire to — attention that's not based on anything I've done or achieved."

Music critic Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by email at [email protected].

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