fri 21/11/2014

Aimee Mann, Royal Festival Hall | New music reviews, news & interviews

Aimee Mann, Royal Festival Hall

A rare London show from the impeccable singer/songwriter

Aimee Mann: songs in the key of strife

Aimee Mann must surely be one of the most unstarry of stars. While most of her fans were still in the bar thinking about what they might have as a pre-gig aperitif, she strolled onstage to join support act Ted Leo for a couple of new songs they have written together. No grand diva entrance here, she just strapped on a bass guitar and stood next to the Costello-ish Leo pulling at those strings. Moral? Never ignore the support act, it might feature the person you've paid to see.

When Mann returned after the interval there was no costume change, no big fanfare to signal the start of her set, which was largely a mix of her latest album, Charmer, with a selection of tunes from the soundtrack of Magnolia and some old favourites and obscurities sprinkled into the gaps. No sign of her two best known singles in the UK from way back in the early Nineties, "I Should Have Known" and "Stupid Thing". 

If there was a fault to the gig it was that it was a little on the one-note side

Nobody was going to cause a riot at their omission though. Mann's oeuvre is fit to burst with well-polished gems. On Charmer the title track and the new single, "Labrador" (see the witty video below) both have a gently persuasive Beatlesque hook to them. Remember the Alan Partridge gag about Wings being the band the Beatles could have been? Aimee Mann is the singer/songwriter the Beatles could have been if they were a statuesque blonde with Nana Mouskouri glasses and cheekbones you could shave your parmesan on, with a penchant for soft rock and the new wave pop of The Cars.

At 52 Mann's voice is as effective as ever. Taut, strong, yet delicate. More muscular than Margo Timmins of The Cowboy Junkies, meatier than Suzanne Vega. She was funny too. Introducing a few of her songs from the soundtrack to Magnolia she mentioned that "Save Me" had been nominated for an Oscar. Presumably she was pipped by a former Genesis drummer, because she opened with the impromptu line "Phil Collins, why did you take my prize?" There was plenty of chat between songs and a tantalising anecdote about the possibility of a collaboration on a musical with The West Wing's Aaron Sorkin.

Most of her songs are about heartache and dysfunctional relationships, but in a literate, nice way. Best of the new crop was "Living A Lie", a break-up duet for which Ted Leo joined Mann onstage only to be on the receiving end of her playful vituperative barbs from the song, albeit it strictly in character: "No one bears a grudge like a boy genius, just past his prime/ gilding his cage one bar at a time."

Of her older material, the most heartrending was not actually written by Mann. "One", from Magnolia, with its ghostly lyric - "One is the loneliest number that you'll ever hear" - is by Harry Nilsson. But then in singer/songwriter circles what comes around clearly goes around: Nilsson's most famous song, "Everybody's Talkin'", also best known for its appearance on a film soundtrack, was not written by Nilsson.

If there was a fault to the gig it was that it was a little on the one-note side. It was only towards the end of the set, with "Soon Enough" and "Goodbye Caroline" (from her concept album about boxing, The Forgotten Arm) that Mann started to rock out, adding some glorious crashing chords and a few leaps to her repertoire of gentle, melodic riffs and jerky shuffles in front of the mic. But she won any doubters round with an encore that included an ad hoc rendition of "Ghost World" from 2000's Bachelor No 2, a song requested via Twitter that she was initially not even sure she remembered. Of course she pulled it off. A one note gig maybe, but boy, what a wonderful note.

Watch the video for "Labrador"

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