Aimee Mann Proves Them Wrong

Aimee Mann, a pop singer-songwriter whose career has been bedeviled by record company troubles, has released the catchiest, most straightforward songs of her career as part of the Magnolia soundtrack.

Ms. Mann scored her biggest hit in the mid-80’s, as frontwoman for the band ‘Til Tuesday, with “Voices Carry,” an angry anthem against a controlling male. In the 90’s Ms. Mann went solo, releasing the critically acclaimed albums Whatever (Imago, 1993) and I’m With Stupid (Geffen, 1996).

Another Mann record, Bachelor No. 2 , was scheduled for release from Interscope Records, but executives at the company “didn’t hear a single,” as they say in the business, and asked Ms. Mann to come up with more stuff. Rather than give in, she bought the masters back from the company as they were. You can buy the unreleased album at her sold-out run at Joe’s Pub, where Ms. Mann is playing nightly on a bill with her husband, Michael Penn, through Feb. 19. Bachelor No. 2 will be in record stores in a month or two; Ms. Mann is working on a deal with a distributor.

Back to the Magnolia songs. You might think that, with all the record-company woes, Ms. Mann might make music that was willfully odd or “artistic.” But no. The nine Aimee Mann songs here are beautiful and perfectly crafted. For these songs, too, Ms. Mann has pared down her lyrics, which, on Whatever and I’m With Stupid , were often more digressive and obscure.

Ms. Mann, originally from Boston, is now part of a mini-scene in Los Angeles. Along with her producer Jon Brion, she’s one of the regulars who play a club called Largo. Mr. Brion, who is also Fiona Apple’s producer, has had record company troubles of his own; his album, Meaningless , a mix of insanely catchy pop-rock songs and John Lennon-ish balladry, was shelved by Atlantic last year.

So Ms. Mann and Mr. Brion find themselves in the strange position of being pop music rebels. All they want to do is make lovely, melancholy ballads and peppy, intelligent rock songs, but the market isn’t buying. It seems that their brand of pop music-its ancestors range from Carole King to Burt Bacharach to the Raspberries to Gilbert O’Sullivan to Harry Nilsson to John Lennon to Squeeze and Elvis Costello-doesn’t sell anymore. But my ears cannot detect why songs like “Save Me,” “Wise Up” or “Build That Wall” from Magnolia would not be hits in a market that rewards Sarah McLachlan.

Magnolia is something of a reprieve for Ms. Mann and her industry troubles. The director of Magnolia , Paul Thomas Anderson, approached her about doing the songs for his latest movie. And, voilà , Ms. Mann has nine songs on the marketplace on the Warner Brothers label. Magnolia , the movie, was released by one of Time Warner’s corporate children, New Line Cinema.

The lyrics here deal mainly with the sturdy pop music themes of heartbreak, regret and loss. The new thing here might be Ms. Mann’s focusing in on how victims of love may revel masochistically in their own despair. The melodies serve to lift her characters out of their self-induced miseries.

Ms. Mann’s singing is conversational, recorded close to the microphone. It sounds real. She has learned a lot about music since she was that spiky-haired frontwoman of ‘Til Tuesday and, unlike many pop music veterans, she’s still inspired.