Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company

The New York Times

February 5, 1996, Monday, Late Edition -Final

SECTION: Section C; Page 10; Column 3; Cultural Desk

LENGTH: 412 words


Getting Even, in a Very Even Tone



Songwriting can be the best revenge. At Irving Plaza on Thursday night, Aimee Mann had the last word on more than a dozen disintegrating romances, and she never had to raise her voice. Her songs contemplate unhappiness with cool hindsight. They wrap recriminations and second guesses, mea culpas and parting shots in tuneful, neatly rhymed pop-rock that unabashedly harks back to the Beatles.

Her voice, a mezzo-soprano with a touch of Chrissie Hynde's vibrato, mixed composure and regret as Ms. Mann addressed lovers and friends: "I was hoping that you'd know better/But I've been wrong before." In "Choice in the Matter," she mistrusts a lover who won't play back answering-machine messages in her presence; in "Could've Been Anyone," she observes, "The words may be true but I realize/It isn't description so much as disguise."

Ms. Mann and her frequent collaborator, Jon Brion, have learned well from mid-1960's rock and its latter-day students, including Elvis Costello. Her melodies travel from symmetry to surprise, using the Beatles' major-to-minor chord changes and unexpected turns. "They're always the same/a verse, then a verse, and refrain," she sang in "Fourth of July." But while many of her songs stick to classic pop forms, a few, like "I Should've Known," use multiple themes like the Beatles of "Abbey Road." Her band had mastered Beatles-style arrangements, strolling forward on their bass lines; although it was shaky in folk-rock songs, it came up with a canny, understated version of "Voices Carry," Ms. Mann's 1984 hit with 'Til Tuesday.

"Timing is everything," Ms. Mann asserts in "Par for the Course." Her second solo album, "I'm With Stupid" (Geffen), has been waiting almost a year for release while Imago, the company for which it was originally recorded, fell apart. Ms. Mann missed a chance to capitalize on her 1995 hit from the "Melrose Place" soundtrack album, "That's Just What You Are," and to join 1995's wave of resentful female songwriters. But an enthusiastic full house, in which many were familiar with an album that had been released in the United States just two days earlier, promised that Ms. Mann's songs would get through.

Semisonic, a three-man band from Minneapolis that opened the show, is also steeped in British pop-rock; its set started with the Hollies' 1974 hit "The Air That I Breathe." Its songs declared affection without irony or obliqueness, in smooth opposition to alternative-rock orthodoxy.

GRAPHIC: Photo: Aimee Mann singing of love gone sour at Irving Plaza on Thursday. (Ebet Roberts)