Aimee Mann: Live at St. Ann's Warehouse

Aimee Mann
Live at St. Ann's Warehouse
Superego Records

I love Aimee Mann in ways you could never understand. I love her big blinking frog eyes and her reedy skeletal body and her white suit coat and the metallic sky-blue tie she wears. I love the creepy deep lines that are gathering around her mouth and connote a certain unfriendly kind of Wasp woman--you can see her elderly mother frowning with disapproval at Christmas dinner. And most of all I love the mini-sized blue-eyed-soul melismas that make every Aimee Mann song an adventure in irony.

Aimee Mann is the exact negative image of Karen Carpenter: Where the late South Beach songstress ironized clean material with her smoky, sordid voice, Mann drops the temperature of emotionally wrenching material by 50 degrees with the hyper-relaxed offhandedness of her delivery. She seems constitutionally unequipped to invest emotionally in her songs by way of her voice; rather than somehow frigid-izing her work, that distance deepens it. Her vocal detachment is like a pale pastel Alex Katz painting: Skinny Sad Girl in Wide-Eyed Retreat.

In the DVD/CD package Live at St. Ann's Warehouse, there are no songs that double-entendrize between closed-off boyfriends and single-hungry record companies. Aimee's days of being picked on by Madonna are well behind her. No, now that she's DIY-ing it on the internet and whatnot, she has to learn to play the game--at least marginally. And so there are lots of corny extras, including a wackadoo making-of video that features the most strained, deadpan interviews since Zelig. ("Yeah, no, I'd say she's much happier being on tour now. And she's funnier. I mean, people don't know how funny she can be up there.")

For the most part, though, both CD and DVD document that louche, unemphatic, sweetly blasé quality that is Aimee Mann's signature and perhaps her downfall. The title track of her upcoming album, King of the Jailhouse, has something like a confessional energy and tells a straightforward tale--a country-fried yarn. But make no mistake: This is definitely a Superego Record. All of Aimee Mann's emotional power comes out of paradox, with the surface freeze enhancing, rather than bug-zapping, the layers of feeling underneath. Where else do you see that nowadays? Who else, like a suspicious mate, makes you work so hard to find out what she's really feeling?

Why have the hipsterati abandoned Aimee Mann so utterly? Mostly, it's the way in which she recalls the sincerity of early-'90s female singer-songwriters; some consider her to be Lisa Loeb with a grad-school pedigree. Partly, it's because she's not angry or uncouth--she doesn't have that smoking-in-the-boys'-room, Yeah Yeah Yeah élan. But also importantly, it's because of the unapologetic literariness of her work. Her music is full of tiny imagistic ornaments that glitter. She's fond of mixed metaphors, uneven parallelism, the unexpected word you fall into like a pothole. (When rock critics describe her work as "precious," please read the subtitle underneath: "I don't get it and I didn't read books in high school.") And there is always the trickiness of gauging the precise degree of irony.

This is the fun of listening to a new Aimee Mann record: figuring out how close to this dryly plaintive voice we are supposed to be. She plays with extreme repression and self-exposure, sometimes within the same phrase. It's beautifully sphinx-ish. And the St. Ann's DVD adds one more layer of irony: the inscrutable presence of Aimee's mandarin, nattily tailored but slightly sour physical self.

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