The easiest way to telegraph the heart of this record is that Beck, whose music always sounds like it comes out of a slight ironic distance, helped produce two of its songs, using some of his own band members. One, Missing Heart, is an acoustic-guitar ballad with overdriven steel guitar pushed into a cavernous background; the other, A Heart Like Mine, is simple, bright, overdriven, like an imagined lost track from an early-period Beatles album. Both mess with country music’s usual sonic dimensions and proportions; Yoakam, with his nasal keening and word-ending yelps, sounds born to the fun house.
Another way to do it is that you hear Yoakam scream a few times: on A Heart Like Mine and his cover of Joe and Rose Lee Maphis’ Dim Lights, Thick Smoke.
Yoakam produced the rest of the record himself, but there’s always something slightly unusual about each track, some proud difference, private enthusiasm or rusty hinge. The voices are loud, the guitars are louder. Waterfall is a clutch of nonsense rhymes seemingly aimed at a small child. To Love Somebody is a judiciously chosen early Bee Gees cover. There’s also a much more inevitable cover of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire (which, like To Love Somebody, is an extra track on the Target version of the album) but he works hard to transform all the song’s original phrasing, warping and drawing out words. The vocal harmonies on Nothing but Love separate into nearly doo-wop parts; It’s Never Alright comes with an unlikely load of strings and a Memphis soul-like horn section, as if Yoakam has been listening to Lambchop more than Jason Aldean, which, come to think of it, is likely.
— BEN RATLIFF, NYTimes News Service
Aimee Mann, CHARMER, SuperEgo
The sugarcoated poison pill is a reliable device for Aimee Mann, a singer-songwriter given to ravaging implication and dispassionate affect. Charmer, her eighth studio album, represents a sunny turn for her, at least in relative terms: It revolves around the fragile psyches and misplaced affections of others, with lyrics that lean heavily on the second-person singular and a sound that evokes some untroubled late-1970s convergence of soft rock and new wave. That it all goes down so easily seems like a sneaky way to make a point.
Mann’s driving interest here, after all, is the insecure, calculating core beneath any charismatic exterior. The album opens with its title track, a would-be anthem involving a simple guitar riff, an analog synthesizer line and a series of generalizations. “Secretly charmers feel like they’re frauds,” Mann sings, steeling her warm, low-gloss voice with a suspicious certainty. How does she know?
You could ask similar questions about the album’s other songs, which target emotional dysfunction from an innocuous distance. Three of them deal with the contemporary archetype commonly known as the crazy girlfriend, each assuming a different perspective on the issue. Crazytown is purely cautionary, a word of advice to the hapless suitor; Labrador is told from his beleaguered point of view; and Red Flag Diver echoes the siren’s call itself: “You’ll be miserable, but I’ll be free.” Mann is capable of more subtlety than this.