30 Year Look Back At Aimee Mann’s Solo Debut Album ‘Whatever’

Aimee Mann’s Solo Debut Album "Whatever."

Whatever Album Photo: Fair Use for review purposes only.

In the Spring of 1993, I was on my way to an E.J. Korvettes (a department store found exclusively on Long Island) to visit a friend who was working there as a salesperson selling vacuums or something less exciting. While my car was waiting at an abnormally long stop light I turned on the radio, and was instantly captivated by a song that had a minor 6 chord in it. Who uses minor 6 chords nowadays besides me and few of my co-writers? I was drawn in. The track was sung clearly, passionately but reserved by a female vocal that was unfamiliar to me. All I knew was that this power pop song stood out among all the rap music that had overtaken the airwaves. I instantly dug it. 

Because the form of the tune was recognizable (it had an actual hook that repeated when I wanted it to repeat) I gathered the title of the song had the word “anything” in it.  Another stop light down – the song ended and a new one played. I waited for that one to end and hoped the DJ would tell me who that female artist was. It was not to be. Another song came on and I was at my destination. Reluctantly, I made my way into E.J. Korvettes and tracked down my very depressed friend.

I spent about a half hour trading pleasantries with her hopefully imparting her with something that could cheer her up. I couldn’t. Leaving the department store with her standing there all alone with the vacuum cleaners was a painful experience. Nonetheless, I got into my car and headed for a gas station. On route, I turned on the radio again and quickly switched stations. I heard a little blip of something that caught my ear. I think it was that song with the minor 6 chord. Could it be? I had tuned into a rather commercial Long Island station that hardly ever ventured off the most conservative, safe playlists at the time so I was confused. 

Sure enough, when the hook came around I knew I had struck gold. What a great tune!  Fortunately, after it ended the DJ happily said,  “That’s a new one from Aimee Mann called “Say Anything,” Who was Aimee Mann?  I didn’t know, but I had to have her song in my record collection.  Now, this is a very rare thing where I hear a song on the radio and feel compelled to purchase it (no online music buying back then), but this one grabbed me.  I forgot all about getting gas and headed over to The Record Stop, one of the few comprehensive record / CD stores in the area. 

I went in determined and asked if they had heard a song called “Say Anything” by Aimee Man. The dude behind the counter paused for a second and said, “Oh Aimee Mann the singer from the group Til Tuesday. “Yeah, she has a new CD out called Whatever, check aisle 3.”  I had heard the name Til Tuesday but I wasn’t familiar with their sound.  Flipping through the “M” files I quickly tracked down the CD.  I stared at Aimee all dressed in black lying down in a rather unnatural position. It was not a typical glamorous shot of a female vocalist. This was a good sign. However, I still weighed the possibility that “Say Anything” might just be the only decent track on the disc. At this point in the music world, I was pretty disappointed with most artists releasing consistently high quality material. 

So my inclination was geared to just write and record my own stuff and add as many minor 6 chords as I wanted.I looked at my wallet; barely enough money for gas or to eat. But that song was a winner and since I always treated great music as food for my ears I trusted my gut and purchased the CD.  If I did not like it I could maybe return it (a prospect that was still feasible in those days).  So I headed home to the studio where I lived (slept in a vocal booth there for years) and went straight for the CD player to hear this Aimee Mann person.

The first track was a power pop kind of song that reminded me of Badfinger. And I loved Badfinger. I enjoyed it on the first listen.  Wow, another intelligent song with a clear form, catchy melody, intelligent lyrics, and cool production, and the singer was not screaming at me as so many of the female artists did at the time. Anyway, track after track I was impressed. Where as I could have spent my last $13.00 on a tasty chicken parmigiana hero at Cosmo’s Diner, I had made the wise decision to invest my hard-earned and sparse cash on a CD I knew little about. And so my review of Aimee Mann’s debut solo venture, Whatever begins:

The CD starts off with a very strong power pop tune called “I Should Have Known.” It’s a song that clearly sets the tone for this collection. It’s about a failed relationship and expectations that were dubious at the start. Aimee’s voice is resigned and reserved. Her co-producer (the very talented multi-instrumentalist) Jon Brion plays an instrument called the mellotron that the Beatles’ were fond of using. And that lends to the semi-psychedelic feel of the piece. But more than the Beatles I think the British 70’s band Badfinger had an influence on Mann’s sound and melodic writing.  This is especially evident in the ending chord that reminds me of Badfinger’s classic “Baby Blue.”  As it turns out Aimee is a fan of that group and its lead writer, the late Peter Ham.

Track two is titled “Fifty Years After The Fair.” The fair Aimee is referring to (I think) is the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park World’s Fair which was held in Queens from 1964-1965.  I remember going to that one when I was 4 and not bright enough to realize what it was all about. Aimee’s lyrics describe the hopeful feeling the fair set out to inspire but now in 1993 the disillusionment of what was promised for a brighter future never did happen. A metaphor for a failed relationship? I think so. 

Special guest Roger McGuinn plays the jangling 12-string guitar throughout producing a sound so closely related to that of a Byrds recording i.e. “Mr. Tamborine Man.” This 60’s supportive element makes the track sparkle giving it an almost optimistic feel.  Mann sings it with just the right amount of resignation and disillusionment.

More disillusion follows with the “4th of July.”Aimee sings her wistful melody over a semi-folky acoustic guitar accompaniment.  The medium-tempo song (a slight waltz no less) starts to build to its chorus with what sounds like a patriotic march you might have heard back in 1776. The simple marching drums sporadically crescendo and echo throughout (think of the drums found on George Harrison’s song “Long Long Long”), and we are left with a tune that is a metaphor for a relationship of speculative regret. A relationship where Aimee has been “sold down the river” and reconciliation is never to materialize.

We shift musical moods with track 4, “Could Have Been Anyone.” This is a rocker with a surprising Motown sample in it’s intro (the drum beat of which is looped throughout) and thus would have made for a decent rap song. Instead, Aimee’s melodic touches eschew the monotone rap formula for something more “sing-songy.” Again, there is a Byrds quality to the overall guitar sound in the chorus which gives it an upbeat feel. However, the lyrics seem to be about someone who obviously made a fatal error in their relationship and Aimee is trying hard to just blow it off as a big mistake that anyone could make. The bottom line is she’s not happy about it.

“Put Me On Top” continues with a mid 60’s sensibility opening with 12 string guitar strumming in stereo. It all sounds upbeat and bright, but the lyrics tell a different story.  While one might make an assumption that the title is a reference to a sexual position, Mann explained in 1993: “Of course, most people think it’s sexual, but that doesn’t bother me; I think it’s sort of funny. It’s about this guy, he’s a great musician, but he whines a lot – he’s got a ‘the world owes me a living’ kind of thing”

Overall, the form is clear, the hook is catchy and the production is uncluttered.

Track 6, is one of the most popular numbers in this collection. The song “Stupid Thing” actually charted at number 47 on the UK charts.  This slow, beautiful ballad (co-written with Jon Brion) is about a relationship that ends before it even got started.  The frustrated nature of the lyrics pair up perfectly with the melancholy melody that arches in the chorus.  Aimee seems to have a penchant for using the word “stupid” in a song.  It appears twice here in this collection and on her second CD release called I’m With Stupid.  The word “Stupid” never sounded so good.

“Say Anything” as stated in my intro was the first song I heard from this CD and the one that really hooked me in.  The arching melody and sophisticated chord structure support a very biting lyric.  Mann’s resigned accusations are something anyone can definitely relate to if they’ve been though a break up.  Aimee puts forth the question: can she believe anything her ex says to her?  Apparently not.  The tension of a rising minor six chord is reminiscent of John Lennon’s song “Jealous Guy” and this only adds to the bitterness felt here.  But what a beautiful bitterness it is.  This catchy masterpiece was co-written with Jon Brion who again plays the mellotron that lends to the overall 60’s / 90’s psychedelic production.

“Say Anything” is followed by the solemn “Jacob Marley’s Chains”.  Aimee’s clenched vocal is upfront and personal with only acoustic guitar as an accompaniment.  More instruments quietly surround her with the  production seamlessly melding into a march that is even more pronounced than what is implied in “The 4th Of July”. It works well with the metaphorical lyrics pinning a lover who like Jacob Marley (a ghost character from Charles Dickens story “Scrooge”), ruined a relationship through selfishness and greed.

The next song, “Mr. Harris” is the most poignant and melancholy of this collection.  It is a heart-breaker about a couple with an age difference of maybe 50 years.  Aimee tells the story of her love for this older man, what makes him so attractive to her, the concern her mother has about the relationship, and ultimately gives thought to his mortality. The melodic skips against the descending chords in the chorus sets up a musical scenario that can easily bring a tear to anyone who is open to musical tension. Absolutely beautiful.  And Aimee’s singing is passionate yet reserved which only adds to the melancholy. 

The overall musical whimsy and production is reminiscent of Paul McCartney’s song “For No One” right down to the descending bass line and the French horn heard in the solo. The legendary movie composer and arranger Jimmy Haskell lends his talents to this classical arrangement played by the renowned Sid Sharp Strings. It’s a timeless song that deserves repeated listening. Another masterpiece.

The next track, “I Could Hurt You Now” starts off with a very Beatlesque guitar riff. Sort of a psychedelic take on George Harrison’s song “Taxman.” Aimee’s anger is reserved here and the minor tone of the tune supports that. There are some nice melodic skips leading up to the catchy chorus that really grows on you.

After letting off steam with the vengeful “I Could Hurt You Now” Aimee returns with “I Know There’s a Word.” It’s a slow, sweet ballad co-written with Jon Brion. The melody is very vertical and a joy to sing. Aimee Mann’s vocals in the verse are again sung with a clenched teeth approach but open up for the chorus. The string accompaniment brings just the right color of expression for this sublime ballad, not to mention Aimee’s underrated bass playing. The lyrics use the phrase “say uncle.” How can you go wrong with that?

“I’ve Had It” is a sincere sounding song-story about the formation and disintegration of a band. Its soft philosophical touches are supported by a simple bossa-nova rhythm with minimal organ and guitar flourishes filling out the stereo spectrum.

The CD closes with “Way Back  When” an upbeat recollection of a band Aimee was in. It very much carries on the sentiment of the previous song but there is resolution in the lyrics. This track features some popping brass lines here and there and Jon Brion laying down a jolly barrel house piano solo reminiscent of The Beatles, “Good Day Sunshine.”  It’s a humorous sounding song; a brief relief from the otherwise serious material found on this disc. In fact, just for good measure tagged onto the end is “Nothing, ”a nine second taste of woodwind recorders playing a lame circus kind of melody. A nod to King Crimson’s “Court of the Crimson King” or the ending of Blood Sweat and Tears, “Spinning Wheel”?  I can only speculate.

Overall, “Whatever” is a subtle masterpiece of power pop and grown-up ballads. Aimee Mann’s musical talent shines through on every track, as she delivers a personal, resonant, and melodically enchanting experience. The album’s brilliance lies in its ability to evoke emotions and provide a soundtrack to life’s ups and downs, making it a timeless treasure worth cherishing for years to come.

– John Tabacco

www.johntabacco.bandcamp.com

johntabacco.net

https://en.everybodywiki.com/John_Tabacco

30 Year Look Back At Aimee Mann’s Solo Debut Album ‘Whatever’ article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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