imageFor her 2012 album "Charmer,” Aimee Mann wrapped her wry, observant tales and matter-of-fact vocal delivery in retro-sounding synthesizers that were applied with subtlety and maybe even a bit of irony: all the better to hear what Mann had to say.

Mann’s invocation of a late-1970s and early-'80s sound recalled her 1985 hit, "Voices Carry," with her band at the time, 'Til Tuesday. But the album was closer kin to her exceptional 2000 solo effort, "Bachelor No. 2," which provided music for Paul Thomas Anderson's film "Magnolia," and in turn garnered her an Oscar nomination for Best Song. A dozen years later, the sound palette shifted for “Charmer.” Mann’s voice and acoustic guitar was very much at the center of the new performances; for the most part, she and producer Paul Bryan pushed the electric guitars of "Bachelor No. 2" into the background to work in concert with piano, drums and bass. On “Charmer,” Chris Bruce provided the tasty guitar solos.

As before, the quality of Mann’s songwriting dazzled with both its perception and economy. Her characters were exposed with just a phrase or two. "No one bears a grudge like a boy genius just past his prime/Building his cage a bar at a time," she wrote in "Living a Lie," her duet sung with James Mercer of the Shins. In the title track, she declared: "When you're a charmer, the world applauds/They don't know that secretly charmers feel like they're frauds." Was she bitter or vigilant? In “Soon Enough,” she wrote: “You can go whatever way you choose/Though you ought to kill the whole vindictive bit/‘Cause you’ll someday there’s ties you’ll want to use.” In the song "Labrador," her narrator, betrayed by a friend, is compared to a loyal dog.

Part of the magic of Mann's music on “Charmer,” her eighth album, was how her conversational singing style conflicted, intentionally so, with her sharp-edged lyrics, a dichotomy wherein reportage and an emotional subtext shifted in balance. She knew well that a degree of distance can make a song more powerful.

Mann, who had a brief memorable role in “The Big Lebowski,” made several clever videos to promote “Charmer.” In the one for title track, she discussed the touring grind with the actor John Hodgman, who recommended that she hire a robot doppelgänger to do concerts and personal appearances. Laura Linney played the automated fill-in who does all too well in her role. The video for "Labrador" was a shot-by-shot spoof of the melodramatic "Voices Carry" video that was in heavy rotation on MTV more than three decades ago. In its intro, a deadpan Mann declared she was coerced into appearing in the video by its oily director portrayed by Jon Hamm.

Though she’s been active in TV and film, and contributed to multi-artist albums, Mann has yet to release a follow-up to “Charmer.” Because the recording, and indeed much of Mann’s work, is of a quality that is so thoughtfully provocative and richly satisfying, that’s a disappointment. Yet “Charmer” remains a work of substance that continues to reward. Until the next Mann album comes long, it will more than suffice.