You can always count on Aimee Mann to do something new and exciting on each new release, be it the alternating narrative on 2005's brilliant concept album THE FORGOTTEN ARM, or the "no electric guitar" policy on the new @#%&*! SMILERS. Lush and full, even without the aforementioned electric axes, @#%&*! SMILERS is, in many ways, classic Mann. However, that may not be enough....but more on that later! The album opens on an upbeat note with the effervescent "Freeway." Quirky percussion, reptiian keyboard runs that weave in and out and a lead vocal that both seduces and soars all combine to make a slice of pop perfection. Add some wonderful lyrics ("The road to Orange County/Leaves an awful lot of leeway/Where everyone's a doctor/Or a specialist in retail") and you have a real winner. Initially, I was less than thrilled with "Stranger Into Starman"...it just didn't feel...finished. However, after repeated plays, I've come to appreciate the song. With it's ominous, low-key piano arrangement and smoky lead vocal, there's an after-hours, torchy vibe to the track that's mesmerizing, growing on you with each listen. One of the disc's high points, "Looking For Nothing" is absolutely stunning. Singing in around three different registers throughout the song, Mann's lead vocal is a thing of natural beauty, while the instrumentation is killer (Special mention need be made of Jamie Edwards' glorious piano riffs). Equal parts melancholy and soothing, this ranks among Mann's all-time Top Ten best songs. Things continue strongly with the country-flavored "Phoenix." This could've been just another break-up song, but Mann elevates it to a whole other level. Opening with the clever lines "Got out of Phoenix/Just in time/A box of Kleenex/For the ride", things just keep getting better and better. Lovely acoustic guitars are juxtaposed with muted (but powerful) orchestration, creating a wonderfully relaxed aural cushion of sound. Toss in more thoughtful, universal lyrics that everyone can identify with ("It's hard to know/When to cut and run/You balance heartaches with your fun/But when the scales tip/You know you're done"), and you have the type of smart pop song that's becoming a rarity in music today. Up next is my favorite cut off the album, the rollicking "Borrowing Time." From it's hypnotic lead vocal to the swinging horns, this cut is unlike anything else on the album. Combine a dose of breath-taking imagery ("Get up - the needle has pricked her little finger/She wants the beautiful child/The blood will bring her") and you have an instant winner! LOVE this song!! There's a shimmering delicacy to "It's Over" that's captivating. Opening with just some gorgeous piano playing and understated orhestration, Mann's vocal dances over the somber, wistful lyrics. Building in tempo and instrumentation as it moves along, the song climaxes in a swirling whirlpool of perfectly mixed and matched sounds. Mann also has an innate talent for looking at every day experiences and putting her own spin on them, as she does with "31 Today." This tale of looking at where life has taken you, it's achievements and disappointments, on, of all days, your birthday, is actually quite enchanting, what with it's hushed verses and lilting chorus. In this case, the road not travelled can be just as enjoyable as the one taken. Things slow down a bit at this point. "The Great Beyond" has a real nice bass line anchoring it, but the rest of the song is a bit schizo, like two or three songs spliced into one. Thing is, we've heard all of them on past Mann albums. I never thought I'd be saying this about an Aimee Mann song, but this is filler. Ditto "Medicine Wheel." Everything here is....nice...from the down beat arrangement to the dour lead vocal, but this cut could very easily have been an outtake from THE FORGOTTEN ARM. I've come to expect every Aimee Mann song to "WOW!" me, and a lot of the songs in the middle of @#%&*! SMILERS fall short of that mark. The same can be said about "Columbus Avenue"....it's nice enough, with a pretty lead vocal and muted arrangement, moving along at a steady pace, but I expect more from an artist of Mann's caliber than "nice" or "steady." As I said earlier, I've come to expect that "WOW!" factor, and it's just not here. It does, however, return with "Little Tornado." Mix together a lead vocal that is equal parts sinister and forlorn, edgy, minimalist instrumentation and a hushed chorus of backing vocals that envoke a swirling cyclone, and you end up with a masterpiece (Dave Eggers' spaghetti Western-like whistling tops it off like some eerie cherry). Brilliant! "True Believer" has a melodic edge to it that just kind of works it's way under your skin, while there's a goofiness to "Ballantines" that's both sweet and silly (Another one of Mann's many talents is her ability to blend opposites, i.e. sunny instrumentation with dark lyrics, a perfect example being showcased here: "It must be hard/Ringing the bells/Of doors that don't swing wide anymore"). very nice, indeed. And kudos to Sean Hayes! Soo...what are my overall feelings about @#%&*! SMILERS? Well, like every Aimee Mann album, I love it.....BUT! As enjoyable as everything's been since 2000's BACHELOR #2, I'd like to see her shake things up a bit more on her next release, maybe revisiting some of the sounds and stylings from her Til Tuesday days, or the excellent one/two punch of '93's WHATEVER and '96's I'M WITH STUPID. Now THAT would make me really smile! (As with all my reviews, I'm giving the disc an extra half a star for including the lyrics, as well as an additional half a star for the gorgeous packaging).