Monday, January 29, 2007

The Concept: Aimee Mann and The Shakes

I can’t quite explain it, but there have been two albums that have been occupying my CD/MP3 players pretty consistently of late and for some reason they’re both concept albums. Remember the concept album? It seems like few people have, despite the fact that some of the most successful albums of all time are concept albums (Sgt. Pepper, The Wall, Tommy), although some of the worst and most pretentious are concept albums, too, so I think I just answered my own question. Anyway, I’ve been listening to Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm for over a year now and after a brief period of spending some time apart and seeing other albums it’s back with a vengeance and I swear we will never part. As a longtime fan and supporter of Mann’s work I’m usually quick to pick up anything she puts out, but I was put off by some bad reviews of the album, so it took me a couple of months to make the plunge. I was taken with it pretty instantly and as Mann is one of the best damn hook writers in all of modern music repeating listenings became mandatory. Now, with most albums I go through a period where I listen to it for a couple of weeks and then trail off when new music comes my way, but The Forgotten Arm has been much different. I have the feeling I’m living with this one for the rest of my life and that Ms. Mann will never be able to top this in my eyes. And this received bad reviews? Does The Onion even know what the fuck they’re talking about?

Before I go on I want to make one thing clear: I am not a music expert of any kind. I don’t play an instrument or read music or know that much about music production or songwriting. I couldn’t even give you the standard elementary school definition of just what makes a great song great (although Chris Bell if wrote it, that’s a solid indicator). But like every lame-brained American I know what I like and every part of me loves this album. To start, I find the concept behind it (the love story between an alcoholic boxer and his girlfriend as they travel cross country) intriguing, in part since this territory is one that Mann has covered before (especially with her contributions to the MAGNOLIA soundtrack) but never with such ferocity. The Forgotten Arm feels like she’s making her final statement on the subject of doomed relationships, so she’s going out by holding nothing back and the concept album device works this beautifully. Mann has always been praised for her abilities to understand a character’s desperation (like she does here on “Going Through the Motions and “Goodbye Caroline”), but she's also written one of the best love songs I’ve ever heard, the album’s closer, “Beautiful”. What especially impressed me was how she builds up to all this, with one heartbreaking song after another (“That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart”, “I Can’t Help You Anymore”, and “I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up For Christmas”) and then wraps up with a song so powerful it just breaks my heart the way a great song should. Unlike most concept albums The Forgotten Arm is small but still ambitious and it confirms for me that Mann is one of the best singer/songwriters today. I seriously love this album.

While The Forgotten Arm's success shouldn't come as much of a surprise, considering that it's from a well-established talent like Aimee Mann, The Shakes' The Rise and Fall of Modern Living bowled me over because it came completely out of nowhere. The Shakes are a small L.A.-based power pop band that had previously released two fun but not that remarkable albums on the great Teenacide label in 2002 and 2004. While making one of my spiritual pilgrimages to Ameoba Music in Hollywood on a recent L.A. trip, I happend to zip past the bin for The Shakes and considering that this is how I discovered their first album I felt it only fitting that I pick up the new CD (which I had no idea was out) at this glorious record shop. Playing the CD in my rental car, I expected more of the same fun power pop full of short songs with fast hooks, but from the first moments in this puppy surprised the living hell out of me. One of the first things you hear is a full horn section blasting out some killer pop and I knew instantly that The Shakes were trying something new and I was liking what I heard. Song after song lived up to this initial promise and by album's end I was gaining a massive new respect for this band. The Rise and Fall of Modern Living isn't Tommy, but it has something that a lot of albums today don't have, a point of view and something to say. It's a depiction of life in the Silverlake area of L.A., which is becoming gentrified and starting to lose its charm and personality. I may be taken with this album in part because I happen to live in a similar neighborhood in Jersey City; the residents like it as it is but outsiders with big money are starting to take over and it'll be only a matter of time before everyone who lives there now becomes priced out of the neighborhood. This is a story that exists all over (Austinites drive around with "Keep Austin Weird" bumper stickers) and The Rise and Fall... captures this feeling just right and it's also a lot of god damn fun, and smart, too. Songs like "Mexican Wedding" and "The Greeter of Sandborn Avenue" make you tap your toes while they remind you of places, people and events in your neighborhood, adding to the smile they're already putting on your face. I can't say for sure if this album is a classic, but it sure as hell threw me for a loop and The Shakes have now jumped several notches on my music ladder with it. It's always great when such pleasure comes so unexpectedly, which may mean that The Rise and Fall of Modern Living's joys may not rub off on you like it did me, but if you pick it up chances are you'll get a kick out of it regardless. It's well worth seeking out.

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