29 July 2007

Soft songs sung loud

Aimee Mann, Indigo2, 27 July 2007

One of the major benefits of living in London is that you get the chance to take in great acts that you've been waiting years to see in the flesh. Last time around in 1998 I was able to see the top-notch American songwriter John Hiatt perform with zest and soul at the Shepherd's Bush Empire - a chance that would probably never have arisen in faraway New Zealand. This time, I jumped at the chance to see another first-rate singer-songwriter: the impeccably-voiced Aimee Mann.

I was first attracted to Aimee's songs by a recommendation by Elvis Costello in the pages of Q Magazine. He hurled superlatives at the opening verse of her song '4th of July', a key moment on her 1993 debut album, Whatever:

Today's the 4th of July
Another June has gone by
And when they light up our town I just think
What a waste of gunpowder and sky

Costello wasn't the only one to recognise Mann's talent early on: on Whatever there's a guest appearance from Roger McGuinn on 12-string (I think) on the beautifully Byrds-y Could've Been Anyone.

But it's not just the lyrics - it's the voice behind them too. Mann is no miserablist doom-and-gloom merchant, even though her lyrics tend to focus on regret, breakups, and wrong-headed relationships. The songs are carried along with her powerful razor-sharp vocals, which are delivered with power and versatility that permits Mann to shift effortlessly from delicate falsetto to warm lower octaves. And in style Mann is definitely a devotee of power pop, lavishing rich guitar harmonies and booming bass guitar to melt over a wall of churning Hammond organ or Moog synths. She also chooses her band wisely, ensuring that her singing is expertly supported by a layer of deft male backing vocals.

Striding on-stage like a platinum-blonde version of Emmylou Harris, long silk scarf brushing her knees, Mann grins and thanks the English audience for loaning the Beckhams to America. With a new album out soon, the night's setlist is sprinkled with recent songs in the traditional Mann mold - big choruses and chiming guitars to the fore. If anything, the new material's warbling synthesiser undertones seemed to hark back to Mann's earlier incarnation as a synthpop star - her group 'Til Tuesday had a US hit with the moody Voices Carry in the mid-80s.

But it's the crossover songs the crowd are most anxious to hear - the songs she wrote that director Paul Thomas Anderson liked so much, he built the superb film Magnolia around them. One song, the delicate and yearning Save Me, won Mann an Oscar nomination for its perfect concoction of hope and vulnerability:

But can you save me
Come on and save me
If you could save me
From the ranks
Of the freaks
Who suspect they could never love anyone

Save Me gets an airing tonight, as does One, a perfect Beatlesque meditation on loneliness; the delicate resistance-is-futile release of Wise Up; and the rarely-played tongue-twister stomp of Momentum, which sees a tangled-up Mann re-starting the song midway, to good-natured laughter on-stage and from the audience.

Later, in the encore, 4th of July gets an airing to an appreciative crowd, and by then everything in the world is just right. We can rest assured that Aimee Mann is still at the top of her game - having eschewed the easy trappings of fame, she's lucky to be the owner of one of the best voices around in music today.



Earlier, Mann's opening act was 25-year-old New Jersey singer-songwriter Jenny Owen Youngs, who displayed a folky girl-and-guitar flair with commendable zest - an American KT Tunstall in the making, if you will. Her whimsical sense of humour also impressed, as after a five-song set from her solo album Batten The Hatches, intertwined with snappy mic banter, she launched into her party piece, an entertainingly daft cover of Nelly's pop-rap hit, Hot In Herre (sic.) - ain't nothing like a bit of white-girl rapping to break the ice in foreign lands. (She also invited the audience to come and 'speak English at me after the show - it's just ... dreamy'). One to watch in future.

Jenny Owen Youngs: MySpace
Youtube: Hot In Herre (Performance with band and possibly ironic cheerleader skirt)
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