The musical inspiration for Aimee Mann's latest disc may come as a surprise. It certainly did for Larry Lee.
Mann's "Charmer" hearkens back to the pop-rock structures of her 1990s discs "Whatever" and "I'm With Stupid," and ultimately even further, to radio-friendly hits from 30 and 40 years ago. That's her pop music, not the kind made by Taylor Swift, Beyonce or Katy Perry.
In fact, she zeroed in on one song in particular: "Jackie Blue," a 1975 hit by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.
"To me, that's the perfect pop song and was kind of the touchstone for the whole record," said Mann, who's 52. "In fact, there are certain songs (on 'Charmer') where it's basically an homage to that song."
That news thrilled Lee, who wrote and sang "Jackie Blue." He lives in Springfield, Mo., and although the Daredevils are part of his past, he stays active in songwriting and music producing. He has several Mann CDs in his collection.
"For somebody who I respect as much as I do Aimee, it means more than money or anything like that," he said. "There are not that many people that I respect to the level of her. There are some, like Peter Gabriel and Paul McCartney, but she's in rarified air as far as I'm concerned."
Listen closely to Mann's "Crazytown," and the background singers' "ooos" will remind you of "Jackie Blue." The songs even have thematic similarities, being about people sucked into the dramas of friends with self-destructive behaviors.
Mann's new music is hook-laden with dark undercurrents. It's not just the nut case in "Crazytown." The title cut's subject is manipulative despite his charm. Mann's duet with James Mercer of the Shins, "Living a Lie," is about a co-dependent couple who see through each other's facades.
"Charmer," which debuted at No. 33 on Billboard's 200 albums chart in September, is not a concept album, but Mann finds discs that are more than a collection of unrelated songs more satisfying to the artist and listener.
Mann went through record company nightmares early in her career, and now makes music on her own label, SuperEgo. That doesn't make her immune to the industry's problems. She said many fans can't see the connection between illegally downloading music and the struggles of their favorite artists.
"If I don't have enough money to make another album, I can't make another album," she said. "That's how it goes. You can't think about it. Am I suddenly going to appeal to people's consciences and make them not steal music? If you don't like it, great, then I can understand you not buying it. But if you like it and end up stealing it, then I just think you're a jerk. Of all the people to steal from. Musicians? Really?"
Two videos for "Charmer" give Mann the chance to display her humor and Hollywood connections (her musician husband, Michael Penn, is a busy film composer). Actress Laura Linney is featured in one as a Mann "robot" programmed to go on tour so the singer doesn't have to.
Jon Hamm and humorists Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster appear in the video for "Labrador." It shows Mann "tricked" into remaking the video for "Voices Carry," her 1985 hit with 'Til Tuesday, minus the elaborate hairstyle. It reunites Mann with the MTV favorite that introduced her to a wider world, a song she's kept at arm's length since going solo.
"It was literally one of the first three songs I wrote in my life," she said. "I think it's got some OK points, but I don't think it's a great song. It's very simple. I perform it very rarely. Sometimes people will yell for it. I really have to be in the mood and I'm not often in the mood."