Not long after singing a song from the perspective of a self-loathing, giant squid, Jonathan Coulton had the pleasure of introducing Aimee Mann. “I’m here to bring them down so you can lift them up,” he deadpanned. “With your songs about well-adjusted people and relationships that work out.”
Over the last few decades, Mann has established herself as one of the most interesting storytellers of the messy human experience, digging into difficult matters of the heart and mind in acoustic tones and that velvet voice. And while it’s true these are often stories of failure, heartbreak, and, per the title of her latest album, Mental Illness, these songs — and especially the banter between them — feature plenty of warm beauty and even some laugh-out-loud moments.
In fact, throughout the night, Coulton and Mann bounced between heartbreaking tunes and bits of vaudeville dialog. Coulton himself rose to prominence for songs about evil villains and Ikea, but he slyly packs plenty of emotion into his tender acoustic tunes. The two proved a perfect match for the middle-aged set, a crowd that Coulton knew would be well-represented. When not singing about massive deep-sea creatures, he sang about finding happiness in the suburbs (“Shop-Vac”), life with kids (“You Ruined Everything”), and the official furniture brand of the Norseman (“Ikea”). “Lift your tired arms and try to bring your hands together,” the nattily attired Coulton smiled.
Coulton’s recently released LP, Solid State, came out on Mann’s SuperEgo label, and he co-wrote three songs and sings on Mental Illness, so the two shared the stage quite a bit, each coming out for moments during the other’s set. Mann’s bass and backing vocals were the only accompaniment for Coulton’s songs (save an electronic drumbeat played via laptop for one track), but she pulled together a full band able to fully articulate her new songs. And while songs from Magnolia will always garner a large reaction from the audience, the crowd were already enchanted and eager for the Mental Illness tunes as well. “I realized that virtually every song of mine is depressing, so I will now match the depressing new ones with some depressing old ones,” she smiled.
Throughout the set, Mann’s interplay with the backing band, particularly bassist Paul Bryan (the other half of her “Buckingham and Nicks tribute”), gave lush shape to her ingenious melodies and lyrics. New tracks like “Patient Zero” and “Rollercoasters” shone in the live setting, the wide-ranging Park West space perfect for their soaring harmonies. Much like Coulton’s new “Pictures of Cats”, Mann’s introduction to “Goose Snow Cone” struck a chord with the audience, describing her lonely time touring Ireland and looking at pictures of a furry friend. Though the story has a silly origin, the homesick and heartbroken song brought more than a few tears to eyes.
Naturally, classics like “Save Me” and “4th of July” similarly brought the handkerchiefs out, Mann’s voice ringing out as a sharp-eyed observer of the cloudy darkness inside us all. Though the extended solos and rhythmic interplay dominated most of the song, Mann’s smoky take on Harry Nilsson’s “One” rode on the smoldering sadness of its loneliness. And the night ended with an aching take on “Deathly”, the broken persona creaking from within the astonishing music. But even still, she and the band managed to bring things away from the brink after each song, constantly showing that observing dark means you can see the brightness as well. As keyboardist Jamie Edwards shifted keys while Coulton attempted to tune his guitar, Mann shrugged and called it jazz. It’s that kind of ability to find a laugh in the darkness, to see the beautiful in the sad and the sad in the beautiful, that ensures Mann remains such an astute and endearing observer of the human condition.
4th of July
Stuck in the Past
Rollercoasters (with Jonathan Coulton)
You Never Loved Me (with Jonathan Coulton)
Goose Snow Cone (with Jonathan Coulton)
Good for Me (with Jonathan Coulton)
Going Through the Motions
Long Shot (with Jonathan Coulton)
One (Harry Nilsson cover)