Originally featured in the online edition of the Irish Post.
Clad in chic leather jacket and dark rimmed glasses and swinging her hips down stage right to bassist and collaborator Paul Bryan’s down stage left, Aimee Mann betrays her 52 years. Youthful and sprightly, she appears like a cross between the ethereal, angelic Emmylou Harris and the geeky charm of Elvis Costello; like the former, she posses a strong, commanding voice; like the latter her work, unfortunately, ranges from the remarkable to the forgettable.
In what is a fully seated show, Mann has her loyal and devoted fan base- who have, no doubt, journeyed with Mann through her eight albums of output, including 2012’s patchy release, Charmer- in the palm of her hand from opener ‘Disappeared’. In what is very much a show of two halves, Mann’s set is divided. The first half draws largely from Charmer and 1995’s I’m With Stupid, including the latter’s ‘You Could Make A Killing’, which Mann has previously claimed was written about her one- time infatuation with Noel Gallagher.
While it’s clearly evident that Mann knows her way with the fundamentals of Power Pop; that is, 4/4, mid- tempo, major key, blues- pop that owes much to the classic I-IV-V major progression, it all feels slightly samey: the song arrangements are too similar to each other and Mann’s unremarkable tunes bleed into one another. There is also a distinct lack of surprise and both Mann and her band look very much on auto pilot.
True, Mann is a crafty wordsmith, so it’s unfortunate that her literate lyrics, including much of her narrative- driven tunes from her concept album about a journey man boxer, The Forgotten Arm, are drowned out in the mix by two keyboard players, particularly Charmer’s title track, which is laden in Moog synthesizer sounds. Indeed, the selections from Charmer are full of the kind of sneering, self- deprecating cynicism that defined the best songs of Soft Rock and New Wave, but which is distinctly lacking in pop songs today. That said, however, there are sloppy, hackneyed metaphors and clichés abound, such as ‘Labrador’ and the album’s title track. Clearly, quality control is an issue and one gets the feeling that a writer of Mann’s calibre and experience should know better.
All is not lost, however. When Mann’s backing band leave the stage, Mann performs selections from her soundtrack to Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2000 masterpiece, and the soundtrack’s companion album, 2000’s Bachelor No. 2. During the descending G minor / G minor seventh introduction to ‘Save Me’- Mann’s Oscar nominated song and, arguably, her best known song- Mann indulges her audience in a spot of light- hearted jibes aimed at Phil Collins, who beat her to the Oscar. Rivaled only by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Mann makes an excellent raconteur. A craft in itself, Mann’s on- stage banter between songs diffuses the intensity of her tunes, allowing her to present and perform her songs in a way that is inclusive and, above all, entertaining.
Not only is it refreshing at this point of the set that Mann’s lyrics can finally come through in the mix, but the stripped down and sonically arresting arrangements of the Magnolia and material open up an infinitely more interesting dimension to Mann’s material. Indeed, ‘Wise Up’, a seminal, solo- piano song, which was an integral soundtrack to a defining sequence in P.T. Anderson’s sprawling movie, has Mann’s Dublin audience spellbound and in awe. Finally, the gravitas of Mann’s mature and oaky voice is able to take centre stage.
After what can only be the most resounding round of applause of the night, Mann’s band once again grace the stage for Mann’s cover version of Harry Nilsson’s ‘One’, which features in the opening credits of Magnolia. As the lush harmonies, tremolo- heavy guitar, swelling organ and crashing symbols all work together to build during the song’s chorus, one can’t help but feel that this is the band at their most interesting, exciting, suspenseful and less predictable. It is this kind of sweeping, sonically diverse material that is lacking in Mann’s catalogue.
Gamely taking requests from audience members, Mann’s audience of die- hards call out songs so obscure that Mann no longer knows how to play them. Eventually, Mann settles on ‘Invisible Ink’ from 2002’s Lost in Space. Keeping feel- good vibe of the night alive, she recalls her trip earlier in the day to the statue of Phil Lynott outside Bruxelles on Dublin’s Harry Street before launching into a cover of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Honesty is No Excuse’ with support act Ted Leo playing Eric Bell’s audacious lead guitar parts. Earlier in the night, Leo had provided backing vocals on Charmer’s ‘Living a Lie’, which, on record, features backing vocals by The Shins’ James Mercer.
Closing on a dizzying high with Bachelor No. 2 highlight ‘Deathly’, complete with one of the best opening lines ever written in song (Now that I’ve met you / Would you object to / Never Seeing each other again), Mann makes up for the lyrical shortcomings of recent material.
Fans may not have long to wait until Mann’s work graces the Grand Canal Theatre again: a stage musical, adapted from her 2005 album The Forgotten Arm and written in collaboration with heavily in- demand Hollywood screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), might be with us soon. And while Charmer may not be enough to win Mann new admirers, the savvy Virginian certainly has the songs and stagecraft to remind those who take her granted of her mercurial talent.