Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company  
The Boston Globe

February 14, 2000, Monday ,THIRD EDITION


LENGTH: 645 words

HEADLINE: MUSIC REVIEW AIMEE MANN AND MICHAEL PENN With Paul Tomkins At: Somerville Theatre, Saturday night;

BYLINE: By Steve Morse, Globe Staff

   SOMERVILLE - Singers Aimee Mann and Michael Penn are known as husband and wife, but they're perhaps better known as thorns in the side of the music-biz

establishment. They've both had their problems dealing with rec ord labels and fighting for radio airplay - and with other duties that require the schmoozing these two artists despise.   So it's appropriate that the two iconoclasts are touring together - and fitting that they're debuting a new form of entertainment, at least one this writer has never experienced.

They seamlessly meshed their own songs on Saturday - many of them serious, meditative takes on love - interwoven with

jokes from stand-up comedian Paul Tomkins, whom they brought from Los Angeles as part of the show. (His bits with them were much better than the self-conscious self-promotion that marred his long solo set that opened the night.)

Tomkins would later sneak onstage at the end of songs and banter with the participants or recite one-liners or mock-translate what Penn would occasionally say in Spanish - such zany quips as "My wife needs assistance. Where are bandages to be found?" Or this tidbit: "My wife persuaded me to come on this tour. She said it would be like a vacation." Or Penn would step back from the mike and you'd see his lips move as though he were talking, only to have the words come from the improv-spouting Tomkins.

Whatever you want to call it - the term bohemian vaudeville might do - the effect was totally engaging. The idea evolved from gigs at a Los Angeles club called Largo, which books musicians and comedians. Mann and Penn, who played Tuesdays there for a while, got friendly with local comics and invited them to join, particularly because it eased the pressure of having to talk between songs, which both singers have said they don't enjoy doing.

In front of a sold-out house at Somerville Theatre - a quasi-homecoming show for Mann, who lived for many years in Boston before moving to LA - the two singers came off as cultural seers.

The songs still carried deep impact with their barbed-wire, Dylan-steeped insights about life and relationships - but the show never became too dour or cynical, which can sometimes happen, given these artists' history of speaking out against neglect by the rec ord industry.

Mann and Penn were also evenly matched in their songwriting brilliance and in the ability to support each other with first-rate vocal harmonies. Mann began with a few songs from her underestimated "I'm With Stupid" album (1995), including "It's Not Safe" and the country lilt of "You Could Make a Killing." Dressed in a black denim jacket and jeans, she seemed homespun compared to the more glam/new wave look and sound of her '80s Boston band, 'Til Tuesday.

Mann, whose voice shows more subtlety and less attitude these days, thrilled the crowd with an encore of that band's hit "Voices Carry" (which she rarely performs), but also thrilled the audience more softly with songs from the recent "Magnolia" soundtrack, such as "Save Me" and "Wise Up." She also added the spectral "Ghost World" from an upcoming solo CD, "Bachelor No. 2," which she's about to release on her new label, Superego Rec ords.

Penn held his own with a combination of dreamy Beatles-esque tunes (several from his fine new album, "MP4") with thoughtful song-poems and the change-of-pace "Brave New World," which had the snap of Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Throughout, both singers were ably backed by guitarist Buddy Judge (who used to be in the Boston band the Buddy System), drummer John Sands (who played with the Joneses and Merrie Amsterburg, two other Boston acts), and the cleverly textural keyboardist Patrick Warren, who has also played with Fiona Apple. Look for Mann & Co. to return for a Boston date in June, details to come. Don't miss them if you get the chance.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO, PHOTO/PETER SOREL Aimee Mann played a sold-out show at the Somerville Theatre.