From Humble Beginnings…
Luminous New Albums From Duncan Sheik and Aimee Mann

A programming note first: I am beyond happy to report that the long-rumored and long-delayed Jellyfish four-CD box set Fan Club not only exists, but is out and available. I’m looking at my copy now, and I hope to slam this column out in a couple of hours so that I can stay up late and absorb the whole thing. I plan to review this next week, but as someone who would pay good money to hear Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning play tunes from McDonald’s commercials (which they do on Fan Club), I can’t promise the most objective review.

After that, I hope to play catch-up with a massive column encapsulating the new ones by Coldplay, the Black Crowes, Spoon, Ani DiFranco and Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch. That’s all to make room for the deluge on September 24, including albums by Beck, the Levellers, Mortal, Tonic, Poor Old Lu, Peter Gabriel, Low and Ryan Adams. Sheesh. October, of course, is no less expansive (and expensive), with releases from Mark Knopfler, Tom Petty, Ben Folds, Tori Amos, Tracy Chapman, the Elms, Foo Fighters, Badly Drawn Boy, the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson and Sixpence None the Richer. If I don’t answer your e-mails until November, that’s why.

I know I said I’d do Coldplay this week, but I’m still absorbing it. Luckily, there were a bunch of releases this week, and two of them struck me as complementary and worth discussing together. They’re both, in many ways, about escaping where you’ve come from.

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I’d bet that Duncan Sheik cringes each time he listens to his self-titled debut.

A strange and mostly unsuccessful attempt to merge Nick Drake-style atmospherics with radio-ready pop, Duncan Sheik contained a couple of swell tunes and a whole bunch of boring ones. It was overproduced, with waves of intrusive strings blocking out everything except Sheik’s unpracticed, straining voice, which sends shivers of the wrong kind. Still, there was promise there, buried under oceans of studio dronery, and my instincts told me he would be worth watching.

If every major label artist improved at the rate Sheik has, the industry would be in much better shape. His second album, Humming, was worlds better, even in its improved balance between the pastoral and the poppy. His third, Phantom Moon, made a brave and fantastic leap into acoustic artistry, leaving his first two efforts in its gentle, chilling dust. I enjoyed it so much that even in the face of unenviable competition, I awarded it the top spot on last year’s Top 10 List.

Sheik has long maintained that he will be attempting a split between his more artistic endeavors, like Phantom Moon, and his pop star records. Most greeted this news with a mixture of anticipation and dismay – depending on which side of Sheik you like, every other album could potentially feel like a trade-off at best and a sellout at worst. Being a huge fan of Phantom Moon, I greeted his just-released Daylight, described by Sheik himself as a more modern radio album, with trepidation.

I needn’t have worried. As the titles suggest, Phantom Moon and Daylight are merely two sides of the same coin, each album the yin to the other’s yang. Daylight is light-years removed from the fragility of Moon, but even further from first-album tripe like “Out of Order” and “Days Go By.” This is an accomplished pop album, populated by elegant songs honed to a fine sheen. These are the kinds of songs you want radio to embrace, because by their very presence on the dial they would up the relative intelligence of the airwaves.

Daylight was produced by Patrick Leonard, who has worked with Peter Cetera and Michael W. Smith, among other lightweight popsters, so the atmosphere and muscle present here is a bit of a surprise. The requisite string accompaniment on two of the album’s best tracks, “Half-Life” and “Shine Inside,” stays south of overpowering (except at the climax of the latter song, where overpowering everything else is the point), and the layers of guitar and keyboards are subtle and in service to the songs.

The real surprise here, though, is Sheik himself. He’s carried the Phantom Moon experience with him into this project, and exhibits a casual confidence throughout that truly marks his arrival. The Duncan Sheik of the first two albums tried way too hard to convince himself he could write and sing his songs. The Duncan Sheik of Daylight already knows he can, and you can hear the difference in his voice, which has grown into a remarkable instrument. His even tenor is unlike any other voice out there right now, and he can bring it soaring into a weightless falsetto with surprising grace, especially when compared with earlier attempts.

The songs have come a long way as well, and while Daylight is indeed a bunch of pop tunes, these are artfully constructed pop tunes with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of memorable hooks. While both of Sheik’s prior pop records contained stretches of uninspired boredom, there isn’t a moment wasted on this one. Opener “Genius” is as bad as it gets, with its simple chords leading into a rousing “la-la-la-la” chorus that brings it home.

I confess ignorance here, but if the buoyant “On a High” isn’t the first single, it ought to be. “Magazines” recasts the J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold” as a disturbing morality play, “Good Morning” finds the narrator taking sales pitches from the devil, “Start Again” makes the most of its circular melody, and “For You” is a near-perfect acoustic break. And closer “Shine Inside” is the kind of epic few songwriters these days even reach for.

In short, while it’s a shame that someone capable of Phantom Moon chooses to make pop albums like Daylight, these 11 songs establish Duncan Sheik as a force to be reckoned with. This is as artful as modern pop gets, and the album serves as the second half of Sheik’s mission statement. Hopefully there will be an audience for these songs. Sheik is an unabashed classicist, a throwback to the days when “pop” wasn’t synonymous with “crap,” and it would be a shame to lose him. Especially since he’s reportedly working on another Phantom Moon as we speak.

Aimee Mann, as well, came from humble beginnings, and I’d bet she hasn’t listened to those old ‘Til Tuesday albums in more than a decade. Who would have guessed in 1984 that the punkish “Voices Carry” girl, who used to front a noisy anti-pop combo called Young Snakes, would be capable of the luminous pop she’s been making for more than 10 years as a solo artist? Even the final ‘Til Tuesday album, the accomplished Everything’s Different Now, couldn’t have prepared anyone for Whatever, Mann’s delightful solo debut.

Since then, it’s been one commercial disappointment after another, with label after label either folding or rejecting her work. Her second solo disc, I’m With Stupid, was delayed for more than a year while Mann fought with Geffen over its release. (This after Imago, her first label, went belly-up.) Her third, Bachelor No. 2, met a similar fate, and Mann finally bought her album back from the label and released it her damn self, riding a wave of attention she earned with her soundtrack to Magnolia.

Hence, Lost in Space, her fourth album, is her first since Whatever to come out on the label and the release date originally announced. Not hard, really, since the album is on Mann’s own SuperEgo Records, which exists specifically to release her work. With no label interference and unlimited creative freedom, Mann has finally made an album that sounds purely her, a collection of sad tales set to superb, graceful atmospheres.

If I could put an album atop my Top 10 List based solely on packaging, Lost in Space would be a shoo-in. A beautifully designed digipak, the album features the sublime work of New York cartoonist Seth, who has told a few sad tales himself. His graphic novel, It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, could be an Aimee Mann song. It’s the tale of a cartoonist’s obsession with the past, and failing attempts to fit in with the present. His art conveys all that lonely, sepia-toned emotion with gorgeous clean lines and a classic style.

Seth is a perfect choice for this album, as Mann’s lyrics are equally past-obsessed. In just about all of these 11 songs, things are not as good now as they were in some hazily-remembered past. Mann’s characters drift though these songs, tethered to their memories, and often lacking the will to rearrange their circumstances. (To her credit, only one song, “Pavlov’s Bell,” could be interpreted as an attack on a record company executive…)

As is her trademark, Mann sets these stories to some of the sweetest melodies you’ve ever heard. There’s rarely any light at all in her words, so she relies on the music to provide that, which it does admirably. The result is a kind of melancholy lightness, a nostalgia-tinged reverie that remains oddly hopeful. Even though the main character of “Today’s the Day,” for instance, never gets up the courage to actually leave before the song’s conclusion, one gets the sense through the music that she will one day.

If I have one complaint about Lost in Space, it’s this: Mann seems to have found a style she’s sticking with, and even though this album is a step up from Bachelor No. 2, it provides the same effect. Mann writes terrific songs, but she’s starting to write the same kind of terrific song over and over, and it would be to her benefit to stretch out a bit more on her next record.

A minor quibble, however. Listening to Lost in Space from beginning to end provides an experience unlike any offered by any other singer-songwriter currently recording, and it will stay with you long after the final strains of “It’s Not” have faded. Lost in Space is an emotional experience, an album you feel and experience rather than analyze. It finally cements Aimee Mann as an artist who has grown beyond her humble beginnings to become a master of her craft, and of her own destiny.

See you in line Tuesday morning.