“Sit down, sit down,” Aimee Mann told the crowd Sunday night as she walked onstage. It set the tone for her Royce Hall debut, a performance that felt closer to a literary reading than a concert.
The singer-songwriter has been leaning in that direction in the last decade — she’s dropped the inventive funhouse arrangements that characterized her collaborations with producer Jon Brion in favor of more sober, adult folk-rock. Her most recent album, “The Forgotten Arm” (SuperEgo Records), is designed to look like a book, with the songs designated as “chapters” and a Thomas Hart Benton-styled cover. Comprising a loosely structured song cycle, the tunes feature relaxed, cannily constructed melodies ornamented with guitars reminiscent of Badfinger.
“Going Through the Motions” is a perfect example of her recent style — a kissoff to a junkie lover, it’s wonderfully balanced between short and long phrases, the lyrics finely honed couplets dipped in poison. (“They’ll have a big parade for every day that you stay clean/but when the trumpets fade, you’ll go under like a submarine.”)
But the show revealed a performer unsure how to present herself. The songs are obviously the work of a serious and careful craftswoman, but the concert comes off, at best, as an afterthought. Her laconic performance encourages the audience to savor each well-turned phrase and perfectly placed melodic turn, but the set list felt like a clip job, something cut and pasted together with little concern for pacing, or how the songs play off one and other. If anything, it put her limitations in high relief — even Mann was forced to comment when two concurrent songs had the same chord changes.
After playing a few songs from the new album and a couple of tunes from her soundtrack to “Magnolia,” she opens the show to requests. As usual, she doesn’t remember the lyrics to her tunes — something that’s become a running joke among her fans. She reacts to them with a spiky humor: When someone calls for “Voices Carry,” the 1985 Til Tuesday hit that put her on the map, she asks: “Wouldn’t you rather hear Cyndi Lauper?” in a perfect deadpan. (It didn’t keep her from encoring with a lovely slowed-down version of the song.)
The final result was an understated version of her House of Blues performance in May, which made the evening feel a little frustrating, like a lost chance. Given the venue and the imprimatur of UCLA Live, Mann should have taken some care to show off her prodigious talents.
Mann plays a free show at Gotham’s Tribeca Performing Arts Center on Nov. 20.