“That song is, like, if John Denver is too edgy for you,” quipped Aimee Mann, after playing a particularly stripped down version of an already delicate-sounding new number, “Rollercoasters,” at a Los Angeles homecoming show Saturday. As anyone familiar with her latest album, “Mental Illness,” could attest, the joke acknowledges how she’s managed to strip just about everything resembling “rock” out of her current musical direction. Edgeless, though? Good luck maintaining any kind of Rocky Mountain high when there’s a passel of razor blades buried beneath every bucolic harmony.
That combination of the beauteous and the barbed has always figured into her material, but “Mental Illness” brings it all into much starker relief, thanks to a retooled approach that eschews electric guitars, synths, and measurable percussive syncopation. That quietude carried over to Saturday’s show at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, the last concert on the first leg of her tour (which resumes in the Northeast in late June). There was nary a non-acoustic guitar in sight, and the drummer ramped up to an actual backbeat only on a handful of oldies toward the end. Dan Fogelberg, if not John Denver, would have been proud… and, given the dark tone of the material, maybe he’d have been getting a drink at the bar with Nick Drake.
“Mental Illness” is a striking entry in Mann’s catalog not just for the instruments it lacks, but for the addition of a string quartet as beautifully and hauntingly realized as any you’ve ever heard on a contemporary record, thanks to bassist/producer Paul Bryan’s unexpected deftness with subtle orchestration. L.A. fans might have been wondering how the new material sounded on the road without strings attached. They’re still wondering, since one of the benefits of a hometown show is coaxing the string quartet to drive downtown after all. Besides having them play on four new songs, Bryan also came up with L.A.-exclusive string arrangements for “Save Me” and “Deathly,” allowing both “Magnolia” perennials to blossom anew.
“Save Me” and “Deathly” were probably saved for near or at the end because they’re two of the more hopeful songs in the Mann catalog, their desperate-sounding titles not withstanding. Some slightly more rocking numbers from earlier in her solo career also kicked in toward the end. But it was the six starker “Mental Illness” numbers, which made up a third of the 18-song set, that really provided the show’s most ebullient moments, at least for anyone who finds a shivery combination of finger-picking, four-part harmony, and emotional fusillades as much of a thrill as power pop.
Mann has half-jokingly declared that the impetus behind “Mental Illness” was to finally let the music sound as depressing as the lyrics, but the final effect is rarely as dreary as that humble-brag might suggest. With this album, she’s become even more a master of the strange euphoria of the sinking feeling. Mann knows that even hitting bottom can hurt so good, if it’s a liberating moment of clarity. One of the best new songs played Saturday was “You Never Loved Me,” described by Mann as “based on a friend of mine who was more or less left at the altar… When you are delivered such a sick burn, it kind of goes past ‘My feelings are hurt’ right into ‘Hat’s off, asshole,’ and that’s what this song is about.” With lush, three-man backing harmonies offering aid and comfort, and only the briefest rat-a-tat percussion piercing a lovely piano solo, desertion never sounded so sweet, even as the lyrics offered a self-slap in the face.
Mann is part comedienne at heart — there’s a wryness to her most downbeat material — and in recent years she’s brought a lot of outright laughs to her shows by working with a comedic foil on stage. On her occasional Christmas tours, she’s invited real stand-ups to show up for some amusing interchanges. When she toured as part of the power trio The Both a few years ago, she and fellow lead singer Ted Leo bantered like a veteran FM morning-jock duo. On this solo tour, it’s opening act Jonathan Coulton (who Mann signed to her SuperEgo label) as he appears on stage for about half of her set. It helps that he has a voice as pretty as hers, on top of playing the Fry to her Laurie.
But Mann is plenty funny on her own, as when she explained that the new album’s first single, “Goose Snow Cone,” was inspired by feeling homesick while looking at a friend’s cat, named Goose, on Instagram — and “I thought, ‘I will replace this phrase, obviously, because nobody will understand it except me, and I don’t want to have to explain it every time I play the song live.’ That did not happen.” Or, when an elongated moment of tuning caused the hear-a-pin-drop atmosphere to devolve into shouted audience requests, she responded, “We have selected a song”… and then, just a little more wryly, “Til Tuesday is not a song.” All the levity is a good counterpoint to an increasingly hushed approach that proves that, indeed, whispers carry.