Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company  
The Boston Globe

January 20, 2001, Saturday ,THIRD EDITION


LENGTH: 525 words

HEADLINE: MUSIC REVIEW Acoustic Vaudeville Aimee Mann, Michael Penn, and David Cross At: Berklee Performance Center, last night. Repeats tonight;

BYLINE: By Joan Anderman, Globe Staff

There is no rational explanation for the success of a show that combines bitterly serious songs and stand-up comedy. Especially when the funny guy, David Cross, announces in his opening monologue that Acoustic Vaudeville - the title of this tour - identifies two of his least favorite forms of entertainment and then proceeds to brutally mimic both.

But Aimee Mann and her husband/ touring partner, Michael Penn, are not, as Mann explained, "known for our humorous between-song banter. So David is going to do it for us." It was, in fact, ingenious - the notion of leavening the pageant of toxic love ballads and barbed-wire beauties with shots of comic relief. And it's not as if there wasn't any common ground. The trio share an endless supply of intelligence, irreverence, and originality, and the loose-limbed, bohemian approach to live performance - honed at an LA club called Largo where all of them gather regularly - was like a breath of air in a performance climate that has become suffocatingly choreographed.

   That said, it was all about the songs. Mann and Penn are among the finest writers of their generation. Backed by a four-piece rhythm section that was by turns

delicate and spare, plugged-in and turned-on, the pair played and sang on nearly two dozen of each other's compositions, which merged seamlessly into an extraordinarily simpatico collection of smart, gorgeous tunes.

Wasting no time getting to the point, Penn covered apathy, betrayal, and tragic endings in his first number; by song two, Mann had explicated loneliness and isolation. At the end of the night no trauma, pain, misunderstanding, or loss had been left unexplored. And lest anyone not in attendance imagine that it was a dark and dismal evening of music, here's Mann and Penn's secret: They are genies with a hook.

Like the proverbial spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, these two wrap their biting insights into the incurably dysfunctional human condition in some of the most irresistible melodies and jangly chord changes this side of the Beatles. Penn's "High Time" and "Bucket Brigade," Mann's "Cigarettes and Red Vines" and "Save Me," - to name just a few - are as close to pop heaven as one can get while rhyming "riff-raff" with "mimeograph" (Penn), and "perfect fit" with "tourniquet" (Mann).

While conventional rock show dynamics were hardly the guiding force, Mann and Penn did a grand job of pacing the set, which built gradually from pensive to rollicking, thanks in large part to Michael Lockwood's irrepressible electric guitar work. Penn eventually traded his acoustic ax for an electric, as well, and Mann laid down her tambourine and cranked up her bass.

Neither particularly relishes performing, and in turn neither related much to the audience, except to call out for David Cross, who gleefully gave voice to Penn's despicable inner thoughts as he tuned up, reminisced about staying up for three days swallowing packets of dry Jell-O before giving birth to a song, and reported that Mann had let fly a blasphemous diatribe against George W. Bush because she wasn't invited to play at the inaugural ball.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO, Aimee Mann's soul-piercing songs benefit by leavening.