Whaddaya get if you cross my favourite childhood duo with my most revered pair from adulthood? A friendly ghost mash of Hey Hey and Boards Of Canada, naturally. This was whipped up live in Triple R studios a decade or so ago at five in the mornin.’ DJ dickie knee pluckin the vinyl and mixing up a melodrama.
Forgotten what it’s like to be twelve? Hey hey it’s a-ok – Heazy’s remembered for ya. It’s not back to the future but we can fast forward the past. Climb aboard the cassette space machine as it rewinds an ocean of time. It’s 1992 and Mum’s up and down like a yoyo. The problem is ” Justabout ” can’t do tricks and his getaway skateboard’s caught in the gutter. Oh well, guess it’s spag bol & Beyond 2000 in the beanbag while patting Blossum.
A one of a kind, twice in a lifetime, triple-threat theatre show is watersliding to a dreampool near you. Premiering in Hobart in March. Based on the acclaimed memoir and radio series. This is the show and tell extravaganza where a never ending story finally gets the beginning it deserves.
I first heard Aimee Mann’s I’m With Stupid in grade ten. The year was 1996, the town: Burnie; the shop: Soundwaves Record Bar. I had just started my first job as a death-cook for KFC, earning my own money – albeit $4.70 an hour. I think two hours of slave labour may have covered the heavily discounted double fluro price tags on this particular Cee-Dee. (One cannot underestimate the victory of actually finding something you liked on special, given that the average album price was $31.50 – today’s equivalent of paying for six months of Spotify to hear the same ten Pearl Jam songs, one of them skipping.)
I’d only just gotten my first CD player, characteristically late to the go-go-gadget party. While other kids were playing NBA Jam on Mega Drive I had a second-hand Amstrad green screen with Bombjack loading on tape. On our modest pensioner budget I was the Piping Hot polar fleece to my best friend Billy’s Billabong jacket. Musically enforcing my insider/outsider status; while other boys were ensconced in Gunners and Green Day – I was investing in techno cassingles like Here’s Johnny and/or discounted quirky songstresses from LA.
Another plot-point in the meeting of the Mann’s was that it was only the previous year that the North-West coast of Tasmania had started receiving Triple J. (Pair this with the fact Burnie got MacDonalds in 1993 and you can begin to appreciate the colossal injection of excitement for a teenager in the back-sticks. If Tassie had scored its own AFL team maybe I’d’ve gotten the cultural trifecta.) Triple J had upgraded my stereo to that of ham radio. Via its social subscription I was a two-way team member of my generation, doors opening to reveal Jane Gazzo pied-pipering us through a bandwidth banner as my imagination ran onto the hallowed mainland astroturf of alternative anthems by King Missile, Faith No More and Cake. Romantically, I was single, yet my relationship with this cool cosmos community was a fascinating defacto funfest.
(I rang Calamity Jane up a few times, determined to tell her how I was going to break the school’s 50m freestyle record, that my nickname was Phonze and could she please play ‘Bentley’s gonna sort you out.’)
Justin (FRONT) probably only giving the thumbs up to air off some recent third-degree burn from the chicken vats or industrial ovens
Meanwhile, ‘Long Shot’ by Aimee Mann was on medium rotation. I can confirm this as I have a tape of it being back announced by Michael Tunn (admonishing the previous caller for ringing up from their mobile phone while on a domestic flight. “They say you shouldn’t ever do that”). There’s also an interview with Gibby from Butthole Surfers and a segment where callers phone in with the flaws they’d spotted in Independence Day. The whole thing couldn’t be more 1996 if Fran Drescher was covering Lump by Presidents sponsored by Stussy.
Yes, I played Long Shot, nay, BLARED IT in Surround Sound™ which my Sharp 3 CD changer afforded me, noting the spatial clarity compared to the head-under-the-bed compression of the Taped Off The Radio sound. Oh, to be sixteen again, plonked on the edge of your single mattress, pouring over the dynamic fridge magnet artwork and hazy artist portraits (all lyrics from I’m With Stupid are broken down into individual words and listed alphabetically)!
Hormones coursed through my gangly system like a technicolour forest of beauty and woe – crystallising my mood inside the lonesome wilderness of adolescence. Sparkly, intimate signals emanated from the padded black grills of the speaker box – entertainment as art absorbed in a halo of intelligence, curiosity and satisfaction. Beneath the alternative ambience of an after-school afternoon I afforded myself a double-value victory lap as my mechanical friend lurched the album around its carriage and back to the loading position. Helped by the odour of a Peter Jackson Super Mild smuggled out the window. I was revived and thriving, anything but alone in my teenage control room.
I was pleased to have a new inclusion in my modest CD collection, (comprising of RATM’s Evil Empire, Guru Josh’s Infinity, Spacehog’s Resident Alien, Butthole Surfer’s ‘Pepper’ single and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Streets of Philadelphia’.) Aimee was my first musical girl. I knew nothing about her at all. I didn’t mind in the slightest. I was her prince silly, rescuing her from the discount bin in a small town that for multiple reasons hadn’t connected with her blend of Alternative pop-rock and whimsical lyrics about heartbreak and selfless relationships with damaged people – a theme it would take me another few years to fathom and two decades to perfect.
Justin’s very decked out room on residence at University of Canberra, 1999. You can make out the Sharp 3 CD changer and CD collection. I don’t know about you but I can also clock the timeless spines of Pearl Jam’s No Code, Beck’s Mellow Gold and George’s Holiday EP – err how did that get in there. Fair dues Holiday by George always has me tearing up. Is that tearing up, as in the healthy emotional response or tearing up as in tearing up my paper mache chain mail as I walk slowly backwards through IKEA? Much like what the chap says at the end of Radiohead’s Just, it’s best we never know.
In my first year at University in Canberra, my emotional world was blossoming outwards and inwards, not dissimilar to the flower motif depicted in Magnolia. Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterwork was a timely injection of Aimee Mann wonderment which sent the cultural value of I’m With Stupid climbing the rungs of my CD tower ahead of recent hotshots Garbage, Ben Folds Five and my failed experiment with Counting Crows. Released in 1999, Magnolia was the first real arthouse film to connect with my generation (that wasn’t Romeo & Juliet or Young Einstein.) Indeed, it was so good that it was actually hurting my new best friend Matt, literally depressed that he’d never make anything that good in his lifetime.
Aimee Mann’s song ‘Deathly’ single-handedly inspired the entire movie. If there’s a higher honour that has been paid a songwriter in recent times I’d be interested to hear about it. In the liner notes to the soundtrack Paul Thomas Anderson writes: “She is the great articulator of the biggest things we think about: ‘How can anyone love me?’ ‘Why the hell would anyone love me?’ and the old favourite ‘Why would I love anyone when all it means is torture?’”
It would make sense that a director would be drawn to Mann’s songs as they play like lyrical storyboards. There is a sense of narrative, of place. The language is visual and immediate. As PTA goes on to say “Aimee is a brilliant writer” and these are ‘story songs’ – which is perhaps a quality that could be dismissed as being a little, dare I say it, daggy. By that I mean to say that Aimee Mann’s compositions are disarmingly, wholesomely forthright when compared to contemporaries such as PJ Harvey or Tori Amos – fuelled by an edgier riot-grrl poetic abstraction.
That isn’t to say Aimee’s lyrics or compositions aren’t edgy. Any cabaret-esque over-spelling is under-written with smarm, juxtaposition and wit. S**t yes, Aimee Mann is witty! A rare quality in female artists that don’t toe-dip in pseudo-novelty such as Jill Sobule’s ‘I Kissed a Girl’ or Diana Anaid’s ‘I Go Off.’ Aimee’s an off-kilter, off-broadway eccentric, like Rufus Wainright or Suzanne Vega – or, more closely to my discographic heart; fellow LA misfit troubadour Eels.
Eels is also a bit ‘daggy’ in the indie-cool scheme of things, (Well, maybe I’m speaking out of school and drawing too much attention to my own internal crisis of confidence about what is relevant – but Pitchfork have slagged off most of his releases for being musically two-bit and lyrically hokey, which is code for ‘the kids aren’t comfortable with artists, (especially men) wearing their mentally ill minds on their sleeve and being intentionally vulnerable unless it’s done ‘authentically’ by a mentally unstable artist such as Daniel Johnston. Read: ‘If you’re going to be troubled, either strip it right back by singing your breakdown on a warbly acoustic, or, have the courtesy to dress naked lyrical honesty with full-tilt production al la Nine Inch Nails – self-pity is way too unpalatable to be presented as musically laid-back and self-aware as Eels does. Anyway, I disagress. (Disagreeing with my own digression.))
And, didn’t rage play Eels surprise new single only last week? (Oh good he’s going back to his Souljacker days.)
Pitchfork gave Aimee Mann’s complicated 2000 album (which she released independently after record labels were bamboozled by its lack of singles – who is she taking career advice from, Fiona Apple?) 9/10, so what would I know. Answer: heaps. Buy me a milo.
Aimee’s songs are riddled with metaphor. Everything’s a set up. Love as a heist, relationships as a court case, boyfriend as a fallen superhero. There are twists on words. Plays on devices. Ducking and weaving and jabbing and hooking – Mann is the lyrical shadow boxer – floating like a butterfly tattoo and stinging like a worker bee.
As Paul Thomas Anderson pontificates: “She writes lines that are so simple and direct, you are convinced that you have either A) heard it before B) said it before, or even C) thought of it before (and just never wrote it down).”
I was hoping you’d know better / I was hoping but you’re an amateur
Songs are mostly about breakups. Odes to the calamity men who’ve wooed and screwed her every which way to dinnertime. I read that she had battled depression – there is a defiant dramatic tension that offsets any long stays on glib island.
I’m a superball / If you bounce me once I’ll ricochet / Around the room
So row, row, row your boat gently down the stream / I hope you drown and never come back
Anger marinated in eccentricity basted with irony. This recipe sets Mann apart from her contemporaries such as Sheryl Crow or Alanis “irony” Morissette. The lyrics are immediate, conversational and visual. Mouthfeel of the mind with heart aftertaste. They never drift or waft, rather announce and elucidate stakes of the highest order from a dulcet energy palate.
I’m so relentless / And you’re defenceless
Oh, and she rhymes her socks off. 🧦 Ms Mann’s like Dr Seuss meets Karen Carpenter.
You may wonder what the catch is / As we batten down the hatches
A double syllable rhyme worthy of Kim Carnes’ precocious / pro-blush.
But of course, the central thread that carries me from creation to memory and back is the voice. Aimee Mann owns my devotion through the gorgeous timbers of that velvet chamber.
And I don’t even know you / I don’t even know you anymore
She can hit the high-notes that fall you to the floor. She can glean the low-tone that floats your nose to the ozone. She whispers friendly and dangerous – truths disarmed in confident softness. Mann has approximately the best voice in history. Like none other in the canon. A god-standard Chrissie Hynde / Harry Nilsson masterclass in originality.
Hers is the vocal equivalent of a fresh pressed ruby velvet jacket. Sinking deep into a shady orange corduroy lounge, sipping an expensive bottle of French-Canadian merlot, reaching for a soft pack of Stuyvesants.
An Aimee Mann album feels like a special occasion. No, I don’t listen to her regularly. (Perhaps the richness of her voice means that one becomes fuller, sooner.)
But when I return I am always uplifted, reminded, surprised.
I’m With Stupid was one of the last holdouts on Spotify – outlasting Bill Callahan and Beyonce. (Mysterious, as the rest of her catalogue was there.) I lost my original CD and recently purchased a new second-hand copy, for approximately the same amount I paid in ’96 – in some satisfying twist of capitalist consistency. I was mesmerised by how much more alive the songs sounded. My ears used more muscles; heard extra instruments. As my friend Conrad once said “CDs sound better than streaming, even burnt ones. It’s something about the preamps in stereos.”
That said, in my current station; no longer the new sensation and far from the legacy veteran, it would not be in my best interests to bore you with rhetorical implorations to go out and buy your first CD in like, 15 years. All I’ll say ROCK FANS, is that there’s never been a better time to revisit this obscure slice of mid 90s Alternative and find a comforting voice in these abrasive times.
I saw Aimee play live in 2009. I’d heard she was notoriously shy and awkward, especially about banter between songs. So much so that she’d hired a comedian to act as MC at her US concerts. Over-compensating for this by a long-shot – she proceeded to jabber nervously for up to ten minutes while taking photos of the audience before playing a single note. I am churlishly in awe of my idols when it becomes obvious they are consistent in their vulnerability.
At the end of the set she was taking requests. I was too insular to yell but I would have requested Long Shot. It is still one of my favourite songs of the nineties – conspicuously absent from any themed playlist.
And the award for best swearing in the opening line of an album:
You fucked it up / You jumped the gun / I swore you off / but You climbed back on.
Key tracks – Superball, Long Shot, Sugarcoated, Choice In The Matter.
Fun Fact: Aimee dipped her toe into acting by playing one of the German nihilists in The Big Lebowski. (Continuing her love affair with indie-darling directors).
Gigs: Aimee is touring Australia in 2021/22 with appropriate folk oddball Ben Lee!
Know something I don’t?
Keep it to yourself.
Justin’s CD inventory as catalogued by then girlfriend Tammy at their sharehouse ‘The TAJ’ (named after occupants Tammy, Adam and Justin) in Totterdell Street, Canberra, 2001.
T H E E E N D E
READER SERVING SUGGESTION
Justin, hello, it’s reader here. I enjoyed your column about Aimee Mann.
You write in a very original, thoughtful manner. I remember my first CD by a female that I bought in my country town and there’s a great story about it. Shall I share it with you?
Where can I read more of your writing like this, in this style or whatever.
Oh, there’s the “MUSIC” tab under ‘Columns’ which has a few similar proto-pretentious fine-arts deep-drives. Or just keep scrolling down the page as I’ve recently gone on about the film Love Serenade and my love of synthesizers.
Okay, thanks Justin, I really appreciate you sharing your writing here on your website.
Thanks! I appreciate the feedback, even though there is no comments field because WWPD (what would Pitchfork do)?
Love Serenade is a quirky Australian comedy from 1996 starring Miranda Otto.
I first watched it in 2006 when my then-girlfriend was championing it as a cult sleeper hit. It comes from a fine vintage of Australian quirky comedies featuring Muriel’s Wedding and The Castle but made up also of lesser knowns such as Jane Campion’s Sweetie.
This was a time when Australian comedies were oddball, understated and devastatingly rural. It’s a flavour that has not been seen for twenty years now, when Baz Luhrmann brought in the ‘more is less’ acting bombastics and writer/directors opted to ‘shirk the quirk,’ investing in bleak, gritty dramas and high-gloss middle-class comedies. Perhaps The Castle capped the golden age of the quirky Australian comedy – with a nod to Two Hands rounding out the decade in ‘99.
A last celluloid gasp of an Australia on film that hadn’t quite been nebulised by an American cultural assimilation powered by the globalisation of social media and the echo chamber of the reality-tv decade.
Sound complicated? Well, by contrast Love Serenade is a simple film. It’s about two deadbeat sisters who work themselves into a craze when the star of the Brisbane radio scene Ken Sherry rolls into town and moves in next door.
This film may receive the all-time lowest score in the The Bechdel Test (aside from Mary Magdelene) as the entire lives of the two girls revolve around a man. This is fine and I really do try hard not to reverse engineer films by today’s political standards. Rather, I get a hotshot of bemusement from nineties films referencing themselves as the ‘here and now.’ (For example, Cameron Crowe’s Singles from ‘92 was unexpectedly humorous as the hip twenty-something dude stayed at home hanging on a very important fax.)
In our case, Ken Sherry is disappointed that the local radio station of Sunray hasn’t evolved to CD technology. Instead, he must play his records and wax philosophical into the microphone (allowing the movie to date in a more timeless, graceful, needle-in-the-groove manner) in one of cinemas most relentless presentations of ‘mansplaining’ (which along with the Bechdel Test atrocities might make some millennial viewers anxious and perhaps should come with a label warning) which would probably be worthy of some kind of academic stoush if the film weren’t written and directed by a woman, Shirley Barrett.
The highlight of this film is Miranda Otto. She is very funny. For someone who might be known as the shieldmaiden from Lord of the Rings or a steadfast character in a low budget indie – it’s something of a revelation that she plays the all-slouching, all-scowling, amateur seductress and fish enthusiast Dimity Hurley. Some of the best scenes come early, in which Dimity is the embodiment of teen angst and low self-esteem, trying to carry on a conversation with Ken Sherry. It’s as if she’s so riddled with disappointment at her own answers that she can’t convince her face to arrange itself in any position other than forlorn contempt.
There is something fiendishly anti gender-type and bountifully funny about a severely disappointed looking girl delivering lines matter-of-factly – as if absolutely everything in the world is a bother to her. (To quote Joyce from American Splendour “why does everything in my life have to be such a complicated disaster?”) There is something so familiar and believable about Dimity. She is so devastatingly…plain. Yet, also in possession of a defiant, non-conformist attitude that surely deserves some cultural positioning alongside the ‘riot-grrl’ movement of the 90s. Perhaps certain elements of the Australian ‘calling bullshit’ country attitude crosses-over with the aforementioned punk-grunge aesthetics of the big cities.
Dimity is the embodiment of the sociologically suppressed endearingly oddball ‘misfit girl’ – an archetype that isn’t exactly over-represented in TV and cinema. I think of Tora Birch in Ghost World, but she is positively glamorous compared to the washed out polar-fleece suburban world that Dimity dwells within. (And say, Mattie in True Grit is brash as a way to overcompensate for her non-lady likeness – as if the writer is thinking we’d better give this girl some redeemable qualities or the audience will never embrace her, similar to Daria and Darlene from Roseanne.)
Dimity in contrast is a strange and daring understatement of quirkiness and low-stature. To find a closer example one would do well to stick closer to home – and enjoy the whimsically understated performance of Karen Colston in Sweetie (or perhaps Mary from Mary & Max?) and Magda Szubanski’s immortal Sharon Strzelecki from Kath & Kim. The only American attempt that comes to mind is Martha from the sitcom Baskets (played by comedian Martha Kelly) – a veritable masterclass in deadpan comedy.
Love Serenade’s underhanded approach means that by the time Dimity is throwing herself at Ken Sherry, the sight of her teeth bared in a dorky smile is positively confronting. A scene which could have been positioned as glib or throwaway is given considerable gravitas as the actor and director demonstrate a commitment to the idea, Otto flipping the tone from bumbling comedy to surreal arthouse in what must be one of cinemas most idiosyncratic depictions of female nudity.
Films like this are a time warp for Australian culture. Not to say that sleepy old country towns don’t still exist and resemble the fictional Sunray (located on the Murray River), but more to the point of how we used to represent ourselves on screen. Muriel, Priscilla and The Castle spoke to an affinity with our innate sense of dagginess. Rather than pump itself up to be seen as America’s cool little brother, we used to double down on how isolated and underdog* we were (perhaps a final shudder of low self-esteem from being Britain’s punching bag?)
* the underdag, if you will – screw you auto-correct, I had to type that three times.
Think of The Late Show’s ABC parody Still Number Four. A quarter of a century sounds like a long time for a cultural shift, especially when you’ve had twenty years of the world wide web. In the 90s we had ‘battler pride’ infused in the cultural lifeblood of our creatives – not just something cynical politicians pulled out to seem relatable. Australia celebrated being the little guy and more importantly (and accurately) the outsider. It feels a world away from the high-camp high-gloss meme-toting in-your-face brashness of the kinds of millennial comedies that seem to pop up and manifested itself in Working Dogs’ 2012 mainstream comedy ‘Any Questions For Ben?’ in which the lead character was a marketing guru.
I’ve often argued that dagginess, in its purest form, no longer exists. The internet has simply made us too self-aware. It’s a ‘genie out of the bottle’ level of consciousness that can’t be rolled back. Films from the 90s, like music videos from the 80s (unhinged American dancing makes me uncomfortable), confirm this theory – their authenticity and blind confidence making them nostalgia darlings for future generations finding their footing amidst a cultural melting pot of cold cuts and fragmented references.
Love Serenade has a clear and present soundtrack. (You can find it on Spotify. I’m a very big fan of Rock Your Baby.) 1996 was a time when Barry White was played. The 70s tribute was a characteristically 90s thing to do, which now feels like a double throwback as I can’t think of the last time I heard Barry White used to earnestly represent something sexy. It’s gone the way of The Stripper, Wipeout, theme from Psycho and other scene-setting loony tunes I first heard played on Hey Hey It’s Saturday. (I mean, did Paul Thomas Anderson use Barry White in 1998s Boogie Nights? No. That was probably first on his list of last songs to use.)
Ken Sherry is WAY older than the girls, which gives the film a layer of menace and dramatic tension that I’m sure wasn’t around even ten years ago. He’s positively sleazy and reprehensible, in a way that was a lot easier to doze off in front of in 2006 (even right next to your feminist partner), but now feels like an invisible finger in the room poking you regularly. Modern day real-time comedic-value depreciation aside – it’s a mesmerisingly even performance by George Shevtsov who I haven’t seen since. (Incidentally only the day before I watched the Seinfeld episode in which an actor (Larry Hankin) plays ‘Tom Pepper’ playing Kramer in the meta-fictional version of Jerry’s sitcom Jerry (you following me?) – the similarities between the two actors felt oddly familiar).
They both look like they could be half-fish half-man.
This theme is explored in a delightfully unexpected way as Love Serenade deploys one of the rarest of all ingredients in Australian film – surrealism.
A linguist would note the integrity of the 1980s Australian accent as archived in films like Muriel’s Wedding. It’s a commodity that is rapidly diminishing as the Americanisation of our dialect continues unabated. In fact, it’s not just the absence of mobile phones that makes films like this a surreal dream of an experience, but also the omission of the word ‘like’ and inclusions of dinki-di Australianisms like…casserole.
Miranda Otto is the star of this show. Right up to the end, goofily grinning in the background as Ken Sherry delves into one of his exterior monologues atop the silo. I found myself laughing out loud at the performer who has no lines in the actual scene. In fact, so much of Otto’s comedy is conveyed through the silent mannerisms of Dimity, that it feels like requisite viewing to go back and appreciate the subtleties of her face winding its way around from content to troubled and back again as she waits at a park bench – or the good twenty seconds spent tying and untying her t-shirt around her waist as she waits for her sister.
Much like Otto’s performance, Love Serenade is a film that looks deceptively simple to make on the surface, but sails an understated and consistent line that requires great craft and forethought. Watching the director / actor pair up again for 2010s South Solitary, one can appreciate that cracking a frequency of laconic lowkey charm (and making it gripping and refreshing and amusing) is a lightning in a beer bottle exercise. I wish this film were more available as it might restore some battered pride in this country’s ability to produce comedies that are not only funny but unique and original – it seems that baton got passed over to New Zealand and Taika Waititi in the late 2000s.
NOTE: There is a sex scene featuring a less than animated Dimity underneath a workmanlike Ken Sherry that is amazingly similar in tone and framing to a similar scene in Amelie, which came out five years later. A sly tribute perhaps?
Love Serenade is a film about sex and loneliness and the lengths people will go to for comfort. What could be more timeless, human and lung-wrenching than that?
The Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System launched today. I gave a statement and interview for it which can be found online. The intention is to build a whole new system from scratch, which could inspire universal change.
The damage has been done, but hope is pretty cool.
I’m honoured to be able to contribute to this brave new world. I hope the report can make waves from butterfly wings and pour light on the darkest hours of the human mind and the systems that govern our hearts.
In the spirit of the vibe, you can carouse a package of my mental themed columns here (there) everywhere.
That’s good Justin how are you going?
Oh alright I think. The usual baseline of atomic stress endurance and a horizon line of potential difficulties to high jump over.
I have a lot of dreams where everyone is sitting down and participating in something like school or a gig but I’m unable to participate as there is some huge dilemma like a conflict or haphazard preparation and I’m in a total panic.
Gotta love dreams.
At least dreams tell it how it is. Honesty overrides platitudes.
Did you like high jump as a kid?
Not so much. It’s a bit like backstroke in that you can’t see where you’re going. Still, I fared better than javelin. There was one day in PE where I threw it and the back of the pole smacked me in the head.