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Focus on storytelling for Mann

Molly Griffin | Friday, September 16, 2005

Boxing tends to be the inspiration for men making movies, as films like “Raging Bull,” “Rocky” and “Cinderella Man” reveal. It takes an iconoclast like singer Aimee Mann to take the thoroughly masculine sport of boxing and transform it not only into a meditation on love, addiction and redemption but also into something as unusual as a concept album that interrelates its 12 songs to tell a story.

The liner notes for “The Forgotten Arm” are set up so that the lyrics for each song are presented as a chapter in a book, and this comparison is actually quite apt. Mann’s album has more in common with a novel than it does with many other records on the market. It features two main characters, John and Caroline, and the songs are set up to give the impression of an introduction, conflict and finally a resolution. Few artists could pull off such an ambitious project, but the literary and reflective nature of Mann’s lyrics allow her to pull off the concept with ease.

The idea of a concept album seems to be gaining favor among artists due to the massive problem of illegal downloading. By interrelating all of the songs on an album, the artist makes it more appealing and necessary to buy the whole item rather than just having one stand-out song that can be easily downloaded.

“Dear John,” a blues-tinged ballad, opens the album and sets up the relationship between John, a boxer, and later a Vietnam vet and drug addict, and Caroline, a small town girl longing to get away from home.

“Going Through the Motions” and “I Just Can’t Get My Head Around It” are two songs that show the cracks that emerge in the relationship due to John’s drug use.

Songs like “Little Bombs” and “I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up for Christmas” reveal the depths to which the relationship has sunk, but the final song on the album, “Beautiful” reveals the sliver of hope that remains in spite of it all.

While there really aren’t any “skippable” songs on “The Forgotten Arm,” there are several stand-out tracks. “Goodbye Caroline” an up-tempo song whose melody covers its melancholy lyrics about leaving. The pounding drum and piano beat of “Video” builds to its soaring chorus. “Little Bombs” eloquently expresses how life rarely falls apart in one grand event, but is instead “… less a deluge than a drought.” The piano and Mann’s soaring voice drives “That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart,” a beautiful song about learning a secret about a loved one.

Mann produced “The Forgotten Arm” on her own record label, Superego Records, which she founded in response to having clashes with a recording company in the past over how they promoted her album. She has developed a grassroots approach to marketing and gaining fans, and has thus far been very successful.

Mann’s career has followed an interesting path to success. She began with stints in a variety of bands, including the ’80s band, ‘Til Tuesday, who had a hit with the song “Voices Carry.” Her music was the inspiration behind the P.T. Anderson film, “Magnolia.” In the movie, characters speak her lyrics as lines. She also had a small part in “The Big Lebowski” as a German nihilist.

Overall, “The Forgotten Arm” is a meditation on a dark subject, but in Mann’s hands, it becomes pensive and beautiful while still musically entertaining.

The album gets better upon subsequent listenings, and, while each song is good individually, they benefit from being listened to as a whole.

Thanks to Mann’s willingness to take the risk of making a concept album and her willingness to spend as much time making well-crafted songs, “The Forgotten Arm” is an almost flawless effort.