@#*! Smilers (SuperEgo Records)
Aimee Mann's slightly sour outlook has always been at odds with her sunny pop sensibilities, so it's not surprising to find her railing in the title of her latest album against "smilers." But it would be wrong to consign Mann to the pantheon of mopers. She may be a patron saint of self-reliance ("I'm not looking for nothing," she repeats over and over on one of Smilers' tracks), but Mann's songs aren't without redemption. They embrace their own strangeness and luxuriate in melody, expanding with repeated listens. She's not a singles artist because her songs aren't immediately accessible; like Mann herself, they're reticent creatures, exploring harmonies over time and making no concessions to easy listening. Opener "Freeway," brisker and livelier than most of the new songs, feels most like Mann's other work. She's at her best when lightening the heft of her implacable lyrics with bouncy orchestrations, as she does here; slower numbers can wear you out with their drone. Mann is one of rock's greatest and most meticulous crafters, and her second-bests are, on the whole, better than the first-rate work of most singer-songwriters. Smilers, in sum, may not rank quite as highly as earlier albums, but it's a polished and solid work nevertheless.