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The San Francisco Chronicle



LENGTH: 861 words

HEADLINE: Two Quirky Songwriters Team Up;

Aimee Mann and Michael Penn bring their literate, underappreciated music to Bimbo's

BYLINE: James Sullivan, Chronicle Staff Writer

Aimee Mann and Michael Penn were made for each other. Their songs seem to come from the same private bedroom of dread and disappointment, buoyed by vivid pop-rock production and crafty melodies that are invariably compared to the Beatles'.

Their music, often called "timeless," has been dismissed again and again by the record industry as ill timed. Between the two of them, these uncommon talents have been slighted enough to start a support group of two.

In essence, they've done just that. Two years ago Mann and Penn got married. "Maybe we wound up together because (our music) is the mating call of a specific kind of animal," Penn jokes.

The songwriting couple will demonstrate those mating calls Tuesday at Bimbo's, when they arrive with the cabaret-style revue that has made them a recent fixture at Los Angeles' Cafe Largo.

"We're cheap side people for each other," Penn says. His wife, on another phone line, shares his laughter.

The minitour, which also includes stops in Portland, Seattle and a few East Coast dates, finds Mann and Penn in an odd predicament: Suddenly, these chronic underachievers actually have a few things to celebrate.

Several of Mann's newest songs are the glue that holds together director Paul Thomas Anderson's irrepressible ensemble film "Magnolia." "Bachelor No. 2," the CD she bought back from Interscope Records when the label told her they didn't hear any hit-single potential, will be available through Mann's own label in the coming weeks. And Penn's fourth album, "MP4: Days Since a Lost Time Accident," is due February 1.

It's about time they found some satisfaction. Mann, who had an early hit with her Boston band 'Til Tuesday ("Voices Carry," 1985), says there has always been an audience for her music and for her husband's. It's just that the bigger record companies don't know how to find it.

"It's like all those Harry Potter' books. There's a reason that this literate audience is excited to find something for their kids that's not total junk food.

"I think there's a giant audience for something that's more literate. The question is, how do you get to them?"

One factor in the couple's recent successes is filmmaker Anderson, who has used music by Mann or Penn in each of his movies. For his debut, "Hard Eight," he hounded Penn until he agreed to score the movie.

"Apparently he had been a fan of mine for a while," says Penn, who had his own early hit with 1990's "No Myth." "He kept after me for the better part of a year. Finally, I looked at the movie, and I went, Wow, this is really good.' "

Next Penn scored Anderson's breakthrough, "Boogie Nights"; he also had a bit part in the movie. The Hollywood connection came naturally to Penn, who has show-business parents (his mother is actress Eileen Ryan and his father the late actor-director Leo Penn) and brothers (actors Sean and Christopher Penn).

Despite his easy transition to the film world, Penn says he never intended to enter "the family business." "I was consciously avoiding it," he says.

"I love the way you say family business,' " Mann teases him. "Like it's the Mafia, or a funeral home."

In fact, "all in the family" could be Mann and Penn's motto. There are a lot fewer than six degrees of separation among the people and projects in their lives: Penn's mother has a role in "Magnolia." Penn's brother Chris sings backup on "MP4." Anderson's girlfriend is Fiona Apple, who made her latest record with Los Angeles pop handyman Jon Brion, who has his own revue at Largo and produced Mann's solo debut, "Whatever." Penn's sometime producer Brendan O'Brien (Rage Against the Machine) has played on some of Mann's recent recording sessions.

Mann's new album includes "The Fall of the World's Great Optimist," co-written by Elvis Costello, with whom she wrote the terrific 1988 song "The Other End (of the Telescope)."

And Sean Penn plays a guitarist in his latest movie, Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown." What does Michael think of his nonmusical brother's portrayal of the fictional jazzman Emmett Ray?

"Well, he was no Django," he says with a laugh, echoing the comparison with real-life guitarist Django Reinhardt that haunts Ray in the movie.

The Emmett Ray character, a considerable but underappreciated talent, lives a frustrated, destructive lifestyle. Not for Mann and Penn the bitter route: Despite their own bad business deals and commercial disappointments, they have managed rather nicely.

"Could it be that the future's going to turn out great?" Penn sings, somewhat skeptically, on the new song "High Time."

It's almost as though the smash hits that were once predicted for these two would only complicate matters. "The whole concept of in fashion' . . ." Mann begins with a sigh, then trails off.

After a pause, her husband picks up the thought. "I think everyone has their own personal fashion," he says. "This kind of fits right in with mine."



The husband-and-wife team performs at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Bimbo's 365 Club, 1025 Columbus Ave., San Francisco. Tickets: $20-$22. Call (415) 474-0365.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO (2), (1-2) Aimee Mann and Michael Penn: "Maybe we wound up together because (our music) is the mating call of a specific kind of animal," Penn jokes.