Aimee Mann Commands Stage (and Tweets) at Intimate L.A. Show: Concert Review

aimee mann wilshire ebell live P
Touring behind her terrific "Charmer" album, Mann "rocked in a mid-tempo way in the mid-Wilshire district" (as she drolly put it) with a not-just-middling Wilshire Ebell gig showcasing some of the most psychologically incisive songwriting in rock.

Aimee Mann’s month-old release, Charmer, is very nearly a concept album about narcissism, as this deft musical sketch artist introduces one character after another who doesn’t let the desperate need to be loved stand in the way of a lot of bad behavior. By that trying-too-hard standard -- and, maybe, a lot of the benchmarks of show business and rock & roll -- Mann isn’t much of a charmer herself. But she managed to turn it on anyway with a quietly magnetic performance Saturday night at L.A.’s Wilshire Ebell. For all of her modest demeanor and self-effacing stage patter, it turns out that humbly singing about wildly egotistical rascals and rapscallions is not a bad way to draw attention to yourself.

Over a set-closing instrumental refrain of “It’s Not Safe,” Mann offered her own recap of the 19-song, 90-minute show. “I think we all had a good time,” she told the crowd, in typically droll, bordering-on-deconstructionist fashion. “We rocked you in a mid-tempo way in the mid-Wilshire district. Two people told me they loved me, which was awesome. There was some tuning.” Earlier, her efforts to keep her acoustic guitar in tune had provided some comedy. “I hate my f---ing instrument,” she cussed. “That’s right, I’m blaming my tool. I’m a poor workman.” She encouraged the audience to use social media while they waited, and even offered a template tweet: “At this great Aimee Mann concert, where she’s spending an eternity tuning. #snore”

Someone might have been more likely to tweet: “She’s doing a lot of stuff from the new album.” But no need to add a derogatory hashtag, as Charmer is Mann’s liveliest and best collection of material since the mid-‘90s, and the album fully justifies the seven numbers represented in the show. Even if most of the songs are still -- yes -- mid-tempo, they don’t all feel mid-tempo, which is an important point of departure in the recent Mann canon. The title track, played early in the show, proved the best example of Mann harking back a bit to a late ‘70s/early ‘80s sound and using synths like rhythm guitars. Even when she wasn’t using those new-wave period tropes, the layered pop harmonies of a new tune like “Gumby” showed that Mann is still eager to please, wherever she stands philosophically on the charm issue.

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She’s not such a people-pleaser that she still trots out her biggest historical hit, Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry,” except on special occasion, this not being one of them. But there is a “hits” portion of the show, which would be the mid-set reprisal of material from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, starting with a solo reading of the Oscar-nominated “Save Me.” That was quickly followed by a “Wise Up” that did not feature Tom Cruise on guest vocals but did feature an exquisite coda from keyboard player Jebin Bruni, making an electronic piano sound awfully close to a grand.

Other catalog choices ranging from the encore request “It’s Not” -- “because apparently somebody’s not depressed enough yet. I like to think this is my most depressing song. It’s a wide field!” -- to the similarly titled “It’s Not Safe,” which we like to think of as Mann’s most depressing, or maybe just despairingly bitter, if there’s a distinction to be drawn there.

Lest that all sound bummer-ific, Mann has a way of making joy out of jaundice. In many ways, she’s the American Elvis Costello, though she’s almost as lyrically spare as he is verbose, finding an entire oeuvre of great songs in being disappointed by other people’s failure to live up to a basic moral standard… and finding subtle humor in the wordplay that can be worked around those letdowns. That’s never been truer than on Charmer, which would be hard-pressed to be beaten as 2012’s best-written pop album.

“Now I join the queue/of people dead to you/the one-time chosen few,” she sang in the set-opening “Disappeared” -- a tune that could serve as an anthem for Hollywood’s fair-weather friendships. The current single “Labrador” quickly upped the ante for misplaced loyalty and betrayal with a dog-and-master metaphor that was half-hilarious, half-pitiful. With a searing Jamie Edwards guitar solo for a climax, “Soon Enough” reprised the new album’s most overtly Beatle-esque sounds, though Lennon & McCartney never got around to writing a funny song about confronting an addict in a failed group intervention. 

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Another Charmer highlight, “Living a Lie” -- a teaser for a musical Mann hopes to write someday with pal Aaron Sorkin -- was sung with the Shins’ James Mercer on record but in concert featured Chris Porterfield, from opening band Field Report, as her male foil. “Combatant” might be a better word, since Mann and co-writer/bassist Paul Bryan have come up with the nastiest great rock duet since the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.” “I’m reminded that every night I have to look at someone I like and sing these horrible, vitriolic lyrics to him,” she explained, “so I apologize every night.” (Porterfield, a gentle, Bon Iver-esque singer, did almost look a little hurt, come to think of it.)

The almost affectless sweetness of Mann’s voice, and her instinctive melodic gifts and Dorothy Parker-worthy wordplay, make this medicine go down. But it’s not all bitter pills that she wants her audience to swallow, though it certainly helps to be a hardboiled cynic if you’re going to be one of her fans. There’s plenty of idealism at work, as in the key line of “It’s Not Safe,” which goes, “A thousand compromises don’t add up to a wish.” A sobering lyric, in the heart of the entertainment business, but words that Mann -- the turn-of-the-millennium model for going indie -- has lived and thrived by.

On a side note, it was a pleasure to see Mann at the Wilshire Ebell instead of the Wiltern, where she’s often played, not just because of its somewhat more intimate size, but for the un-muddy, wholly comprehensible acoustics. You might’ve found yourself wondering why there aren’t a great deal more shows booked into such a classy and perfectly charming 1920s hall.

Set List:

You Could Make a Killing
Lost in Space
Living a Lie
That’s Just What You Are
Save Me
Wise Up
Slip and Roll
Soon Enough
Goodbye Caroline
It’s Not Safe


4th of July"
It’s Not

Twitter: @chriswillman