Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company  
The New York Times

August 10, 1999

SECTION: Section 2; Page 1; Arts and Leisure Desk

LENGTH: 549 words

HEADLINE: Aimee Mann: Urbane Songs That Express Emotional Embattlement



In song after song during Aimee Mann's tetchy performance at Tramps on Saturday, she sang in the second person to anyone who had hooked her with impressive overtures and then insulted her by making her a low priority.

In all of these songs, her embattled emotional position remained the same: she deserves respect, but she feels fated to receive only the half-baked, temporary sort.

Rahav Segev
Aimee Mann at Tramps, displaying her brand of grown-up songwriting, with familiar sayings fitted into spiky couplets.

There's a very front-and-center self-regard to anyone so fixated on her own disappointment, and it can be off-putting to anyone on the fence about her work.

But it's there for a reason: as with any cult figure, the whole point of liking Aimee Mann is to like her passionately.

Ms. Mann has had well-documented trouble with record labels in the 10 years since she began her solo career, and in that time, because of confining contracts and label mergers, she has been able to make only two albums. She announced to the crowd that she had bought herself out of her contract with Interscope records, which, she said, promised her stardom and then wanted to change all her music.

She mentioned that she had just played some dates at the Lilith Fair, only to complain about the indignity of having been put on the second stage.

(Her point was that it was nice playing to a crowd that had come to see her and her alone.) She mentioned that back near the bar at Tramps she was selling preview EP's of her forthcoming album, "Bachelor No. 2," which she is releasing herself. She encouraged listeners to buy them "to spite the record company."

It was newsletter rhetoric for a select group of fans, the opposite of what big stars talk about between songs. Likewise, her touring band was a money saver, composed of a keyboardist and a guitarist who sometimes doubled on a makeshift drum set made out of an upturned mail crate, a tambourine and a small cymbal.


Imposingly tall, skinny and bleached blond -- she seems to have barely aged since her days as a young new-wave scarecrow -- Ms. Mann has a commanding presence onstage.

And nobody can take away her skill at writing urbane pop songs, melodically rich and full of well-worn sayings fitted into spiky couplets.


She sang a typical two-liner in "The Fall of the World's Great Optimist," a new song written with Elvis Costello: "The eggshells I've been treading/ couldn't spare me a beheading." In another new one, "Calling It Quits," she extended a conceit further: "Though your slippers are ruby/ you'll be led to the booby-trap/ there's no prize, just a smaller size/ so I'm wearing a shoe till it fits/ then I'm calling it quits."

This is grown-up songwriting.

She doesn't let herself go in performance, and her voice, similar in range to Chrissie Hynde's, followed a precise track through each song, singing coolly without conveying any particular emotion.

She closed her show with a slow version of "Voices Carry," the hit she wrote and sang with her old band, Till Tuesday. It's about a boyfriend who wants to suppress her personality when they're in public together. Inevitably, she ended up linking the personal with the professional.

"I wish he'd let me," she repeated several times, then finished the line: "make the record I want to."