Aimee Mann is the most conservative musician P.T. Anderson has ever taken cues from, but that shouldn't make her the least respected. In the pop-classicist vein, she's emerged as the fabled "songwriter's songwriter"—a polite euphemism for someone whose well-constructed dirges run deep, but aren't attention-grabbing, someone doomed to forever land on the wrong side of the commercial ledger. But if anything, Mann's prescient decision to bail from the record industry (well before it was fashionable) has narrowed her sonic horizons; once pressured by innovative producers like Jon Brion to drape her stolid songs with up-to-date arrangements, Mann has beat a steady retreat into plodding '70s grooves since 2000's Bachelor No. 2.
Unwisely picking up where 2005's The Forgotten Arm left off, @#%&*! Smilers offers craft and monotony in equal measure. The promising directions are also the tersest: "Stranger Into Starman" revamps chamber-pop via Broadway in under two minutes, and the even jazzier closing duet "Ballantines" is adorably bouncy. With rare exceptions ("Ghost World"), Mann has always been more of a melancholy mood-setter than a storyteller, which is no help for the many, many wrist-cutters on display here. (Dishonorable mention goes to "Medicine Wheel," a piano-based ballad sounding like the wimpiest of '70s singer-songwriter refugees.) Mann's formidable talent demands collaborators pushing counterintuitive arrangements; she's offering fewer colors with every album.