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Aimee Mann


John is a retired boxer, looking for his second act. Caroline is an escapee from a dead-end Southern town. Together they run off, fall in love, and do their best to salvage each other's broken dreams. That's the basic story line that links the twelve songs on Aimee Mann's latest.

Is it a concept album? It's more like a photo album, with a few pages missing. Mann teases us with snapshots--some vivid, some blurry and torn at the corners. She lets us eavesdrop on conversations between the characters. She shares little episodes in their relationship. And ultimately, after forty-five minutes, she leaves us wanting to hear more of the tale.

To make a narrative piece like this work, you can't fudge on the lyrics. No rockspeak or third-rate poetry allowed. One of the more gifted wordsmiths around today, Mann can convey volumes in a single couplet:

"Cotton candy was king on the midway that spring / When I saw you in the ring on the lawn, dear John / Throwing kisses so Richmond's unfortunates can go on" ("Dear John")

"I drew a picture of you, you and your anchor tattoo; and saw the face that I knew covered in shame / You drew a bird that was here, a kind of sweet chanticleer, but with a terrible fear that the cage couldn't tame" ("That's How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart")

"Life just kind of empties out, less a deluge than a drought / Less a giant mushroom cloud than an unexploded shell inside a cell of the Lennox Hotel" ("Little Bombs")

If Aimee's had a weakness in the past, it's been a tendency toward writing too many overly acerbic songs (I'm With Stupid was an especially caustic record). But here, the characters free her to express a wider range of emotions. Especially potent is the bruised tenderness of "Goodbye Caroline" and "Beautiful."

Though it isn't overt in the lyrical details, the story is set in the 1970s (there's a sly mention of "Calvins," once synonymous with jeans). Appropriately, producer Joe Henry captures the sound of an early Elton John album, with honky tonk upright piano driving a very live ensemble of guitar, bass and drums. Mann's voice, recorded dry, is out front, always keeping the focus on the story and her well-turned chorus melodies.

And in case you're wondering, the title refers to a boxing move that involves hitting your opponent repeatedly with one hand so that they forget about the other, which then uppercuts for a knockout. It's an apt metaphor for the way this album can blindside you with beauty. • Bill DeMain

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aimeemann.com      buy it here (out May 3, 2005)

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