Aimee Mann has never deserved the label of waifish girl singer that's stuck fast since her stint as the leader of the underappreciated 'Til Tuesday. But her second solo release, "I'm With Stupid" (Geffen), has enough acid in it to soak the label off once and for all. In a world of wood sprites masquerading as firebrands -- what did we ever do to deserve the sorry-ass tinkerbell juju of Tori Amos and Alanis Morissette? -- Mann stands apart, quietly making toothpicks out of their territory.
Both as a songwriter and as a performer, she has no patience for either twiddly hippie-girl poetry or temporary-tattoo aggression: her themes are sliced thin and dried out, concentrated and potent. On "I'm With Stupid," Mann grooves on innate self-reliance, betrays incredulousness at the lousy behavior of loved ones, and shows a ballsy acceptance of her own vulnerability. Her anger and frustration are tempered but hardly diluted, wrought into songs that are unapologetically pop -- but it's not just hooks she's after. "I'm With Stupid" is all edges and elbows, always easy to listen to, but not necessarily easy to come to terms with.
It's hard to know what to make, at first, of a record whose opening lines are "You fucked it up, you should have quit," especially when those lines are sung in a voice like Mann's. Sometimes it's lustrous and almost weightless, but its clarity gives it an edge. It's silvery like mother of pearl and stainless steel -- the same stuff steak knives are made of. But those accusatory lines from "Long Shot" are just a beginning, and if they're proof of how hard  Mann can be, they don't prepare you for the way the song ends up. "And all that stuff I knew before/Just turned into 'Please love me more,' " she sings, without a trace of self-pity, as if her own worst shortcoming -- her tyrannical neediness -- had just been revealed to her on the spot. It's a statement so forthright, and so basically unflattering, that hearing it makes you feel you've been entrusted with a secret.
"I'm With Stupid" -- on the shelf since the collapse of Mann's old label, Imago -- is as beautifully crafted as 1993's "Whatever," but its sound is more relaxed, shaggier around the edges. Producer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion's guitar sound is more roughed-up here than on that record -- on "All Over Now," it conjures a dusty, desolate landscape halfway between the plains of the old West and the surface of the moon. Those ever-shifting textures keep even the record's longer songs hanging together tightly, and they give shape and dimension to shorter material like the buoyant pop morsel "Superball." "I warn you now, the velocity I'm gathering/will knock you down, send the chairs and lamps all scattering," Mann sings, her loose, leggy phrasing weaving through the melody less like a frenetic toy than an eight-ball easing toward the pocket. The joke of the song is that she's anything but out of control, and the guitar phrases behind her follow suit -- they're both fuzzy and sharply defined, and they help pull the song into perfect focus.
Maybe it's Mann's sense of control that's been working against her all these years: even when she's confessional and open, she's never the crumpled flower; her voice always has that veneer of coolness. But coolness shouldn't be confused with indifference. It's easy to be seduced by the kicked-back shuffle beat of "That's Just What You Are" but once you really listen to the song, you hear how much bitterness there is coursing behind Mann's restraint. It's not a song about acceptance of faults, but about a final rejection. "What's the matter with the truth, did I offend your ears...?" she sings, trying to be nice -- but just barely. You could read her reticence as a kind of fragility, an anxiousness to be civil and not to offend. But it sure sounds like sarcasm to me. Looks like it's time for the wood sprites to hang up their elf boots and go home.