It takes only a cursory listen to Aimee Mann's alluring new album to affirm that the only thing possibly forestalling a commercial connection would be its inexplicably feisty title. Too bad; the songs on this disc are among the best of her ever-evolving career. While there's some similarity to Mann's seminal efforts with 'Til Tuesday and its haunting hit "Voices Carry," the influences don't end there. Her sultry, sensuous croon carries hints of Chrissie Hynde, just as the rich arrangements — plied with lush keyboards and acoustic rather than electric guitars — occasionally bring to mind the Band and Elton John. More important, @#%&! Smilers finds Mann reconnected to her muse; following 2005's bewildering concept album The Forgotten Arm and the 2006 holiday set One More Drifter in the Snow, the emphasis turns on the songs rather than the setup. That's evident throughout, from the steady groove and assured refrains of "Freeway" to the swelling strings of "Phoenix" and the woozy brass arrangements enveloping "Borrowing Time." Yet the easy sway of these supple yet effusive melodies doesn't deter a dark cast of characters — druggies, derelicts, and those desperate to find their own salvation. Consequently, @#%&*! Smilers isn't all grins, but it does provide a most agreeable encounter.
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