Even those who think the famed "Voices Carry" video is trite have to admit that singer/songwriter/bassist Aimee Mann, of the band 'til tuesday, has star quality. The cleverly conceived video is a passionate mini-drama about a timid woman who eventually bests her bossy boor of a lover. It's a nifty showcase for Mann's subtly expressive face. With remarkable ease and economy of movement, she can project a wide range of emotions (she would have been great in silent films).
Largely because of this video's extensive exposure, the "Voices Carry" single is No. 12 on Billboard's pop singles chart, and a shoo-in for the Top 10. The Boston pop/rock band's debut album, also called "Voices Carry," is No. 26 on the pop chart. Mann, who's only 24, is clearly one of the brightest newcomers in pop music. All this has happened in less than three months.
The slender blond seems too down-to-earth to be undone by sudden fame. Pop success, she noted happily, no longer means automatically succumbing to the usual corruptions: "You can now be in the music business and not get into that ridiculous, sleazy life style where you're always drunk or stoned or coked out or you're sleeping your way to the top. You can be popular without being a degenerate."
During a light dinner in chic surroundings, Mann discussed the band's rapid rise in a very businesslike manner. At the end of that hectic day, her reservoir of warmth had been used up. Underneath that surface charm was a brusque, let's-get-this-over-with attitude.
"Don't you want to know how the band got that unusual name?," she asked. "Everybody else asks that." Her sarcasm was unmistakable. Was this going to be an interview or verbal combat?
Mann changed the subject without explaining how the group got its name. Eventually her attitude changed too. The sarcasm slithered away. The impatience, probably generated by fatigue, never faded but was tempered with tolerance. But not even that undercurrent of impatience could snuff out Mann's natural charm.
When Mann was a 12-year-old in Richmond, Va., she read a book that changed her life. Despite its monumental inspirational value, she doesn't remember the title: "It was this paperback about how to get into the rock 'n' roll business. It was fascinating. I didn't know anything about music then. Out of the blue, I said I wanted to play the bass."
Of course, few prepubescent girls, in the South or anywhere else, are interested in bass lessons. This fact was drummed into her by her family, which ridiculed her bass aspirations.
"They thought it was hilarious that I wanted to play bass," she recalled with a cringe. "I started saving money to buy a bass. My family laughed at me, so I gave up the idea for a long time. If I had started playing bass when I was 12 like I wanted to, I'd be an incredible bass player now.
"Family and siblings can be cruel. When I grew up, I was in charge of my own life. I became serious about music. I finally learned how to play bass. What they thought didn't matter."
Her pop music career got off to a rocky start. Mann, who migrated to Boston in her late teens to attend the renowned Berklee College of Music, wound up in a punk band called the Young Snakes. Working with this outfit nearly soured her on writing.
With no effort to disguise her disgust, Mann recalled: "I had been writing with two guys in the band. The stuff turned out badly. It was this awful, art-rock, experimental trio that wasn't going anywhere. We just played around Boston.
"The other two guys got in the way. I wanted to write songs like I'm writing now--love songs--but they objected to any love songs or any songs that had melody. They were into lyrics that didn't mean much. I wrote lyrics about weird subjects, like one about this autistic guy."
Working in a band called Ministry, under the influence of Al Jurgenson, repaired the damage done to Mann's confidence. "In Snakes, we used to waste a lot of time," she recalled. "I learned how to write efficiently in this other band."
But Ministry was just a steppingstone to forming her own band. "I started writing songs on my own and looking for musicians to put a band together so we could get a record deal," she said. The first recruit was English guitarist Robert Holmes. Drummer Michael Hausman and keyboardist Joey Pesce were hired later.
Dubbed 'til tuesday, the band debuted in March, 1983. A few months later, it won a prestigious annual battle-of-the-bands contest sponsored by a Boston radio station. A year after its debut, 'til tuesday signed with Epic Records.
Mann's pithy lyrics were one of the assets that attracted Epic. "After that awful experience in Snakes, I got some confidence in my writing," said Mann, who also helps write the instrumentals. "I realized I wanted to write about things that were important to me, that were happening in my life. I'm a romantic. I think a lot about love. I like to write haunting love songs with pretty melodies. If people think I'm one-dimensional and plastic because of that, I don't care. I could write love songs forever."
Though Mann attended Berklee for 18 months, she didn't study voice. A distinct naturalism governs her vocals. The frailty, roughness and lack of great range in her voice add up to an oddball quality that's genuinely appealing. If Mann were a polished singer, songs like "Voices Carry" and "Looking Over My Shoulder" wouldn't be half as appealing. The slickness would be deadly.
At the moment, she's better on record than she is in person. Her local debut, on a recent weekend at the Palace, wasn't really dazzling. Her performance, said some critics, was bland. Her band, they charged, wasn't equal to her talents.
Maybe everyone expected too much. That "Voices Carry" video was largely at fault. In it, Mann comes across as this skilled veteran. You tend to forget she's just a promising but inexperienced young singer. After all, this is a relatively new band with limited big-time experience. Before the Palace engagement, the band's biggest dates were opening some shows for Hall & Oates.
It's unlikely that these criticisms really rattled Mann. Before the show she predicted: "I'll probably get rapped some, but you can't let the raps get to you. If you're really good, there'll be more praise than raps. Eventually, I'll get my share of praise."