She's A Free Girl Now

A year ago, it looked for all the world as if Aimee Mann was finished. She'd been unceremoniously dropped by Interscope Records in the Universal/Polygram merger fallout, and no other label seemed interested in signing her.

Then film director (and friend) Paul Thomas Anderson came to the rescue, using Mann's songs as an integral part of his much-celebrated movie "Magnolia." When the Mann-dominated soundtrack became an unexpected commercial success (leading to a Best Song Oscar nomination for the singer/songwriter), this perceived loser was suddenly a hot commodity. While she's deciding whether to sign her fourth record company deal or remain independent, Mann is selling her new album, Bachelor #2, on her Web site (aimeemann.com).

The 13 originals here (including four carryovers from "Magnolia") display this guitar-pop auteur in peak form. For the first time, she avoids the "Why me?" petulance that popped up in her work with '80s new-wave group 'Til Tuesday (remember "Voices Carry"?) and on her previous solo albums, 1993's Whatever and I'm With Stupid (1995). By contrast, the melancholy that pervades Bachelor #2 seems genuinely compassionate rather than peevishly self-absorbed. Apparently she's finally figured out that a run of bad luck in the record biz hardly constitutes personal tragedy (it doesn't really make compelling subject matter for songs, either).

Here, for the first time, Mann concentrates solely on her métier: the filing of incisive dispatches from the frontlines of the war between the sexes. To wit, these lines from the aching "You Do": "The sex you're trading up for/ What you hope is love/ Is just another thing that/ He'll be careless of/ Though there are caveats galore/ You've only got to love him more/ And you do." And on such songs as "Driving Sideways" and "Calling It Quits," she's manifesting a Smokey Robinson-like affinity for the contextual reinvigoration of familiar phrases and mundane metaphors as charged wordplay. Even at its most anguished, the language is deft and zingy, like Preston Sturges or Aaron Sorkin dialogue, and it crackles cerebrally amid the album's ornamental arrangements.

On the evidence of her work here, one would have to say there really isn't any pop-rock composer writing more sophisticated material these days than Mann. Always an inspired melodist, she's now assimilated Burt Bacharach as well as Lennon-McCartney; "Nothing Is Good Enough" and "satellite" sound as if they were written expressly for Dionne Warwick. And countermelodies conveyed by Beatles-esque guitars in "How am I Different" and Brian Wilsonian chorales in "Deathly," among others, enhance the sense of lushness. Meanwhile, her clutched alto — at times redolent of Karen Carpenter, at other times of Dusty Springfield — remains a wondrous vehicle for a broad range of inner feelings, from intimacy to ambivalence and from empathy to entropy.

Even in an 'N Sync world, this emotionally involving and musically infectious album is just too good to be ignored. Here's hoping the moviegoers who discovered her through "Magnolia" remember Aimee Mann's name — and come back for more.