Aimee Mann may have risen to prominence thanks to her music’s key role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 masterpiece Magnolia, but the darkness of some of that film perhaps added an extra layer of melancholy to the work of an artist whose catalogue is usually a few shades lighter.
Mann, now on her eighth LP with this year’s Charmer, certainly has a natural wit and an instant rapport with the crowd in the cold environs of the Royal Festival Hall; after an indecipherable shout from the back of the room, she deadpans “I’m going to guess you shouted ‘I love you’”.
Possibly the problem with some of Mann’s work is that the songs themselves don’t quite equal the ideas surrounding them. She’s a smart, efficient lyricist, for one. Her albums are always beautiful, 2002’s Lost In Space, for instance, featured artwork by the brilliant Canadian cartoonist Seth. She even made a concept album about boxing. And above all else, Mann’s voice has a rare warming, easy-to-love quality to it. But… but sometimes her music is just a tad forgettable. The tracks from Magnolia – “Save Me” sung as a solo, the bleakly uplifting “Wise Up” and a cover of Nilsson’s “One” all reverberate with the audience, but there’s a lack of bite elsewhere.
But the Virginian – looking as sharp as an Italian tourist in an art gallery in a slim-fitting leather jacket and tall boots - makes up for any lack of swagger by being such an engaging, witty presence on stage. When she introduces “Save Me”, she explains in mock-braggadocio that “this song was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe,” and then “…I lost to Phil Collins” (for Tarzan’s “You’ll Be In My Heart”). Mann then starts the song: “Phil Collins/ Why did you take my prize?”
There’s also a fun anecdote about Mann and her bassist/producer Paul Bryan going for lunch with the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin only for him to end up pitching them an idea for musical. Certainly Mann has the chops for it – as the duet “Living A Lie”, performed here with support act Ted Leo, proves. It tells the story of a break-up using duelling two soliloquies and really just works as a piece of mini-theatrics. Perhaps teaming up with Sorkin might get her that Oscar back off Collins.