Aimee Mann - The Forgotten Arm

Don't people realize good music when they hear it?



I picked up the case for The Forgotten Arm and as I started to read the track listing I just had to smile. I felt at home immediately. After all, only Aimee Mann could start an album with a Dear John letter.


It's been a long wait since Aimee's last album, the fabulous and criminally underrated Lost In Space and I, for one, was excited about hearing something new from her. I lay down on the couch for that first listen, pressed the play button on the remote and settled myself for that first, all important listen. By the time the first track ended I was grinning immensely. Not only is Aimee Mann the only person who would start an album with a Dear John letter, she's also the only person who could get away with it. I've read articles by a few people that have criticized Aimee for making depressing and downbeat music, but I don't buy that for a second. They're obviously the same people who think that anybody who listens to Leonard Cohen is a manic depressive and if they find you in a room on your own listening to Radiohead they'll start hiding all the razor blades in the house because they'll be afraid that you may try to hurt yourself. Don't people realize good music when they hear it?


I'll admit that Aimee's work isn't the type of thing you'd associate with sunshine and surfing, but that's what the Beach Boys are for and hey, I live just outside Amsterdam so what the hell use are California Girls and Surfin USA to me? You try listening to Pet Sounds wandering through Amsterdam in a February downpour and see how happy and summery you feel!


I had to glance at the cover yet again because, although the artwork is undeniably beautiful, the sight of a couple of boxers going toe to toe doesn't exactly fit with the image of the beautiful but painfully thin Aimee Mann does it? She may have the voice of an angel but I had my doubts about her being a Million Dollar Baby, if you know what I mean? (It turns out that she is, in fact, a regular boxer so what the hell do I know?)


It's a surprising image at first, but then it makes a lot more sense when you realize that The Forgotten Arm contains a dozen songs that tell, rather loosely, the story of two characters, John and Caroline, as they meet, fall in love and drive across 1970's America together. John's a Vietnam veteran and a boxer, as well as a drug addict and Caroline is a small town Southern girl looking for an escape route. Yes, you've guessed it, The Forgotten Arm is a concept album.


I deliberately didn't tell you that until the end of the fifth paragraph because, as soon as you mention those two words (concept album) people just run for the hills in case they hear another Streets: A Rock Opera by Savatage. I know what everyone's thinking when they hear the words 'concept album,' they're thinking of some ghastly story about some guy finding a guitar, learning how to play and then saving the world with a few power chords, a lot of screaming and a few tins of hairspray. Well fear not, dear readers, because this is Aimee Mann we're talking about and, if you know anything about her music whatsoever, you'll know that she's always written character driven songs. For Aimee Mann to write a concept album isn't as daring, or as daunting, as it would be for some other artists and I'm delighted to say that The Forgotten Arm is a great album.


There's a sense of familiarity with her other work that surprised me though. For starters, the characters themselves are very Aimee Mann type characters, very white trash. They're downtrodden people with little hope for themselves or their future, they're existing on the bottom rungs of society's ladder and they're looking for a way out. Of course, this is Aimee Mann's world so there's no happy ending, they ride off to Vegas or some other casino town and their relationship falls apart. But don't let me hear you call this a depressing album, because it's anything but and I think a lot of that comes down to the production.


Aimee's albums are normally very intricately produced and engineered but this time round things were handled a lot quicker. Whereas before she would treat every song individually and spend considerable amounts of time finding the correct sound for each one, here she just stepped into the studio with a band and recorded the whole thing pretty much live. The press bumpf says that the whole album was recorded in only five days! I think we have producer Joe Henry to thank for that.


The Forgotten Arm is the closest Aimee's studio albums have come to representing her live sound. When you see Aimee Mann in concert it's difficult to understand where people get the idea that she's depressing from because she always looks like she's having so much fun onstage. Finally, you get to hear that in this album. Of course there's a lot of despair and emotion in these tunes, she's not exactly singing happy go lucky songs, but there's a sense of joy and excitement in the playing that I've never heard in Aimee's studio work before.


The tunes themselves are all, bar none, wonderful. King of The Jailhouse and I Can't Get My Head Around It are as good as anything she's done in the past and the rest aren't half bad either. It's a delightful album to spend time with. Its story may be rather tragic, but the music is wonderfully played and undeniably catchy. You won't call it the soundtrack to your summer, but it'll accompany the rest of the year quite nicely.


Words : Damian Leslie