Copyright 2000 Star Tribune  
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)

March 14, 2000, Tuesday, Metro Edition


LENGTH: 454 words

HEADLINE: Aimee Mann shows clear talent but little live pizazz

BYLINE: Jim Meyer

   Today's music business veterans and longtime fans often complain that there are no more career artists in today's youth-oriented, trend-conscious pop world. So it was especially gratifying to witness the return of the resilient Aimee Mann on Monday night at the Guthrie Theater. The crowd was less than capacity but chock-full of local musicians admiring a songwriting survivor.

     After the days when she emerged as the main creative force in '80s pop group 'Til Tuesday ("Voices Carry") and then went through a string of bad breaks at three major record labels, Mann has outdone herself with her work on the "Magnolia" film soundtrack.

     Never one to play it uptempo, she has slowed her song pace even further to great effect. She has worked through her past tendency to emphasize witty rhymes more than moving portrayals. These days, she uses fewer words and that fragile voice to say much more. Such songs as "Deathly," which examines the point at which personal resolve fights emotional need, are marvels of economical but powerful songwriting.

      It's one of many new gems on the soundtrack, and one of four songs common to Mann's self-released solo album, "Bachelor No. 2." "Bachelor" is only slightly less consistent than the soundtrack but shows similar expressive growth and warmer, colorful musical arrangement.

     But Mann still has room to grow as a live performer. For her "Acoustic Vaudeville" concept, she chose to share a stage with her singer-songwriter husband, Michael Penn, and comic/emcee Ron Lynch. Their attempt to re-create the vibe of Los Angeles' ultra-hip Largo club was admirable but worked against the Guthrie's intimacy value.

     But in truth, the nonverbal Mann is no great charmer onstage. Her songs, at first refreshing in their beauty, begin to sound alike. She sings note-perfect renditions, but with little original emotion, staring ahead in a blank daze throughout the evening. Even though her three-piece band was restrained, it took little to drown her thin, sleepy vocals. Playing mostly acoustic, such songs as "It's Not Safe" and "Save Me" displayed her beautiful chord structures, but the studio is clearly her comfort zone.

     If Mann projects an ice-blue shade, it's more than can be said for Penn. After surprising skeptics with his early hits "No Myth" and "This and That" in the early '90s, he has abandoned charming pop weepers to become a sweet-and-lowdown version of Bob Dylan, without the sparks. His ornate but empty arrangements do little to enliven his uncaptivating mini-dramas. Focusing on material from his long-forgotten second and third albums seemed almost obstinate.

Jim Meyer is senior editor at Request Magazine.