Aimee Mann: Sad Songs in Hot Pants

IMG_3780Aimee Mann thinks her songs are sadder than they really are; that there’s so much psychosis on her latest album that she had to called it “Mental Illness.” It was as if a night of her music might result in a jump off a bridge.

“Settle in,” she warned, on the first night of her ”Mental Illness” tour at Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Theatre.

But she needn’t have worried. As she was joined, song by song, by members of her backing trio, it was clear that Mann’s songs of droll observation have a lift in not just how they’re sung but by the soft punch of their assembly.

While her new album looks at different characters or situations it does so in a harmonic way that makes whatever may be melancholy sound sweet.

Its songs are built around acoustic guitar, with a slight wash of keyboards or strings – replicated on tour on synths by Jamie Edwards. Paul Bryan is a constant on bass, but drummer Matt Mayhall often seems less than fully employed.

But this is hardly mournful territory. Even when the message is blunt as it is on “You Never Loved Me,” there is a catchy melody and clever observations and turns of phrase.

The largely acoustic approach allows her elegant songs to breathe. And it’s a good fit for a lot of the other songs from nearly a quarter century of solo recordings, from “4th of July” that began the show to “Long Shot,” the inevitable brush with success of “Save Me,” and one she said she hadn’t played for a while, “Humpty Dumpty” from 2002’s ”Lost in Space.”

Part of the success of the new work is working with Jonathan Coulton, whose fingerpicking and harmonies gave dimension to several songs. As opening act, he was on hand to join her on stage for a few of those songs as well, to more fully flesh them out.

Perhaps making up for her sparse songcraft, she was attired in a pair of leather hot pants, which she seemed to wear unironically. She complained about them only when she sat at Edwards’ keyboards for “Good for Me.” Rattled by how many chords the new had, she acquitted herself well without a single mistake.

Mann creates an agreeable vibe on stage despite her apologies for her supposedly downer material. Even her one cover song was a kind of lonely anthem, playing Harry Nilsson’s “One” to start the encore.

Mann may be known for a dry sense of humor she uses in brief banter between songs or to answer oddball calls from the audience. But Coulton built a career on novelty songs, which he still relied on in his short opening set, opening with a cartoon of suburbia called “Shop Vac” and ending with a singalong about ravenous zombies, “Re: Your Brains.” There’s also one about a giant squid (“I Crush Everything”) and surfing the internet (“Pictures of Cats”).

His new album “Solid State” is a futuristic concept album that is also available in graphic novel form. So he sang one song accompanied by an odd electronic backing from a laptop (on which he had to first log on).

Mann strolled on to accompany him as well on a couple of songs, looking fine in what she said were street clothes, before she pulled the hot pants on for her set.

 

The setlist for Aimee Mann Thursday was:

  • “4th of July”
  • “Little Bombs”
  • “Stuck in the Past”
  • “Patient Zero”
  • “The Moth”
  • “Labrador”
  • “Humpty Dumpty”
  • “Rollercoasters”
  • “You Never Loved Me”
  • “Goose Snow Cone”
  • “Good for Me”
  • “Save Me”
  • “Going Through the Motions”
  • “Borrowing Time”
  • “Long Shot”
  • “One”
  • “Wise Up”
  • “Deathly”

The setlist for Jonathan Coulton Thursday was: 

  • “Shop Vac”
  • Glasses”
  • “Brave”
  • “I Crush Everything”
  • “All This Time”
  • “Pictures of Cats”
  • “Your Tattoo”
  • “Re: Your Brains”

 

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