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Aimee Mann feels your frustration

  • Story Highlights
  • Title of Aimee Mann's new album from annoyed people in newsgroup
  • But album "upbeat," "wry and ironic," says Mann, known for opposite
  • Mann also getting into cartooning, magic
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By Todd Leopold
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(CNN) -- Take that, happy people.


Aimee Mann describes her new album, "@#%&*! Smilers," as "wry and ironic."

Aimee Mann's new album is called "@#%&*! Smilers." For a singer often associated with introspective songs about ne'er-do-wells and second-guessers, this would seem to be a perfect poke in the eye to those who are waiting for her to put out an album of upbeat anthems.

Mann admits that the title has its roots in irritation.

"It was derived from a newsgroup my friend and I used to read ... [in which] people would discuss how bitter they were, which we thought was so funny," she chuckles. "And one of the threads was called 'F----- smilers,' with these people at their wit's end with strangers who would come up to them and tell them to smile."

But, she adds, there's humor -- even optimism -- to be found in frustration. After all, it's a very human experience -- and a bonding one, too. "There's something really nice about hearing people complain about something," says Mann, 47.

Which brings us to "Smilers" (on the former 'Til Tuesday frontwoman's own label, Superego Records), and its songs about ... well, ne'er-do-wells and second-guessers, people who have fallen down the ladder and are trying to climb back up.

Yes, the subject matter can be downbeat. Yes, nobody's going to raise their fist in triumph while humming along with "Columbus Avenue," a tale of failed ambition played out on the San Francisco street, or even "Ballantines," a ragtime-y ode to "seeing the same old crowd pass you by in the street," which features Grant Lee Phillips approximating a horn.

But, Mann says, there's hope to be found in such stories.

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"I don't feel like this record is particularly bitter. ... Actually, I feel like the 'Smilers' part is more accurate -- I feel like in a lot of ways it's a more upbeat record. ... It's wry and ironic."

Reviewers have agreed with Mann's assessment. "There's something special about albums that nail it with their opening tracks," wrote Andrew Male of the UK magazine Mojo, praising the synthesizer-laden song "Freeway." " 'Smilers' is a masterpiece."

"Her best album so far," added the Hartford Courant's Eric R. Danton.

Mann herself is chipper as she talks about "Smilers" -- and a variety of other subjects -- from a Los Angeles recording studio. She interrupts herself to ask whether she should buy a BlackBerry or an iPhone, noting that she wants to be able to combine text and photos and doesn't like using headphones. (That would seem to make the BlackBerry a more logical choice, but Mann describes herself as "very Apple-y.")

She raves about the Magic Castle, an L.A. landmark devoted to the illusory arts, where she and husband Michael Penn -- an old magic devotee -- have become friends with a group of magicians, "and we just love it!" she exults.

And she talks about a new creative outlet -- cartooning.

Mann was approached about a year ago about doing a graphic novel, an idea she at first dismissed out of hand. "And then I ran into this guy named Joe Matt, who's one of my favorite graphic novelists," she recalls.

Matt, the "Peepshow" cartoonist, lives nearby and encouraged Mann to maintain a sketchbook and practice, practice, practice. So Mann has diligently worked toward that end.

"I take a sketchbook and I bring it out at dinner ... and I've got this one friend who always says something ridiculous, so I'll try to write it down and put it in [graphic] form, and it kind of amuses everyone at the dinner table," she says, while saying it's "kind of a long-term project."

Which might not leave much time for music. But Mann, who just began a North American tour that runs through the summer, isn't planning to hang up her guitar yet. She's still intrigued by songwriting, still trying new instruments (some of "Smilers" was composed on piano) and still drawing on her mix of inspiration.

"With the chord progression comes a melody and a meter, and that always suggests a sentence or a line, and then the sentence suggests a story and the music suggests an emotional subtext, and then you put it together," she says of her songwriting.

That might be enough to make anyone smile.

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