The title of Aimee Mann’s latest record is a clear signifier of the cynical sentiments that lie beneath the surface of the bulk of @#%&*! Smilers’s songs. Beautifully arranged and well written, these tunes all harbor a bittersweet sense of longing and/or regret that resonates much deeper than most singer/songwriters’ more straight-forward material.
Many may be familiar with Mann for her work with producer extraordinaire Jon Brion, and while he has long been gone from her discography, his sensibility still informs the work on Smilers. Blending more traditional horn and organ parts with subtle yet powerful synthesizers, the arrangements of the songs here convey a warm and welcoming tone that stays consistent for the entirety of the record.
The most powerful instrument, however, is Mann’s voice, which emits a knowingly sad wisdom that really demands the attention of the listener. While the circumstances that may have perpetrated her scorn are never too evident, it’s refreshing that the material never degenerates into anger or ranting. Mann’s melodies are haunting and powerful, and when she intones that “everything I do is wrong, but at least I’m hanging on” on the powerful opener “Freeway,” you’d be hard pressed to believe otherwise.
If there’s any flaw in the album, it’s that the reflective tone that dominates the record doesn’t really lend itself to much variety. These songs are relaxing in nature, and at times things can get a little dull – but to expect a roller coaster of sounds and emotions from this record is to miss the point. For a solid batch of heartfelt well-written songs, @#%&*! Smilers doesn’t disappoint.
- Sean Kantrowitz