The soundtrack to Magnolia is essentially the long-awaited new album by diva of the underdogs Aimee Mann; nine of the album's 13 songs are hers. Director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Hard Eight) explains in his fawning liner notes how when he heard the songwriter's work in progress, he wrote the film around one of Mann's characters. That bold proclamation aside, most of Mann's breezy yet noir-flecked pop songs are produced by Jon Brion (who's also produced Fiona Apple, Anderson's girlfriend), and Brion plays many of the instruments. That may have contributed to the consistency of the songs' restrained sound, though the tracks produced by Mann and her husband, Michael Penn (who provided the score to Anderson's Hard Eight), have the same minimal, orchestral pop tone. Even when he takes a guitar solo, it's tastefully tamped-down.
The bouncy "Momentum," the not-a-moment-wasted-till-the-chorus "Driving Sideways," the daydreamlike "Save Me," and the song Anderson claims inspired it all, "Deathly," provide the meat of the soundtrack, with Mann in top, timeless form. Mann has written the kind of songs you might expect the film's characters themselves to sing along with (and at one point in the film they do, à la Dennis Potter's plays or episodes of Ally McBeal), a style usually reserved for montages that recall Burt Bacharach at his "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" best.
Mann's approach has earned her glowing comparisons to Elvis Costello, particularly in the way she combines surly, dark wit with incongruously sprightly pop. But she lacks a body of work that compares to an artist like Costello. An instrumental, "Nothing Is Good Enough," has a lustrous melody but cries out for lyrics, and Mann has recycled one middle-of-the-road song ("Wise Up," featured in Jerry Maguire) that's hardly worth reprising. It makes one wonder if she's run out of material: Her bad luck with record labels has been duly publicized, but nonetheless she's released only two solo albums since 1989, when she abandoned 'Til Tuesday (and her unforgivable hairstyle), and the soundtrack shares some songs with her forthcoming album Bachelor No. 2.
Mann's version of Harry Nilsson's "One" -- with backing vocals by Neil Innes and Chris Difford -- is appropriately lonesome; it renders obsolete the previously definitive version, a comical, over-the-top reading by Three Dog Night. On first listen, the inclusion of two Supertramp chestnuts, "Logical Song" and "Goodbye Stranger," sound like shrewd, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, classic choices; on repeat listenings, they're as annoying and silly as they were during the summer of '79 and every season hence. But any future collaborations from the Anderson-Apple-Brion-Mann-Penn family tree group would be welcome: With Penn, Mann, and Anderson at work together, at last there's something going on inside the pop soundtrack business beyond The Breakfast Club.
Aimee Mann and Michael Penn play Tuesday, Jan. 25, 8 p.m. at Bimbo's 365 Club, 1025 Columbus (at Chestnut). Tickets are $20 in advance, $22 at the door; call 474-0365.