Copyright 2000 Times Newspapers Limited  
The Times (London)

July 17, 2000, Monday

SECTION: Features

LENGTH: 480 words

HEADLINE: Don't eat, drink or be merry

BYLINE: David Sinclair


David Sinclair sees a dirgeful Aimee Mann and Michael Penn in concert at the Shepherds Bush Empire

A couple of square pegs who have never managed to fit into the round holes of the music business, Aimee Mann and her husband Michael Penn (brother of Sean) have both enjoyed artistically distinguished but commercially calamitous careers as singers and songwriters in their own right. Now the pair have recruited a common band and fused their two repertoires into one seamless performance which they have called the "Acoustic Vaudeville" show, although it was neither acoustic nor particularly vaudevillian.

The rigour with which the duo continue to protect their status as professional mavericks extended to making their own peculiar adjustments to the seating and catering arrangements at the Empire on Thursday. With no standing or boozing permitted during the set, and given the uniformly sombre cast of their songs, it was just as well that they had enlisted the services of the comedian Patton Oswalt to provide the between-songs banter which, as Mann explained, they were not very adept at supplying themselves.

Oswalt's parodies of typical rock-star announcements and other strategically placed commentaries leavened the impact of a collection of songs which, although beautiful in their form and execution, tended to focus with an unblinking gaze on the bleaker wing of the emotional spectrum.

A thin, pale creature in denim jacket, jeans and work boots, Mann distilled varying shades of disillusion and disaffection from her twist-of-lemon voice on numbers ranging from the lilting How Am I Different to the comparatively funky Whatever. During You Do, a number from her soundtrack album to the Tom Cruise film Magnolia, the audience were recruited to play a percussion part by shaking their keys and coins, a neat trick which lent a magical shimmer to the song that could be heard all around the hall.

Strapping on a bass guitar, Mann then accompanied Penn on a selection of his songs which conjured a similarly intense mood. These included a mournful Bedlam Boys and Bucket Parade from previous albums, and a magisterially slow and sullen version of Don't Let Go from his current collection, MP4.

A faster rock'n'roll shuffle called Brave New World brought some light relief, as Mann and other members of the band did everything in their power to distract Penn while he was singing the rapid-fire lyric. His corpsing was contagious and the show ended on an incongruously cheerful note.

The encores produced a rather cagily sung verse of Sonny & Cher's I Got You Babe before it was back to the serious stuff, including a supremely dirgeful finale of Penn's song No Myth.

While marvelling at the lustrous portrayal of so much heartache in their songs, you would hesitate before volunteering to share a breakfast table with these two.