Aimee Mann’s new album The Forgotten Arm, which she is in the UK to promote, is an intimate album about the story of two lovers taking a doomed road trip to Mexico. The Shepherd’s Bush Empire is a cavernous old theatre with poor acoustics and a battered PA system. What chance of magic?
Sadly it couldn’t. Mann is one of the planet’s most interesting lyricists – at times reaching, but often dazzling with her puns, metaphors and similes. But when a member of the tightly-packed crowd shouted “Turn the microphone up!” at the end of the first song, it was clear that most of her material’s nuances were going to be lost during this gig.
It is difficult to heavily criticise a survivor like Mann. Protracted legal battles with former record companies over their taste in her music forced her to set up her own, SuperEgo, in the late ’90s. Not having the promotional muscle of a major behind her, she seemingly only ventures towards Europe when private funds allow and there is a good chance of breaking even. Who, then, can really blame her if she has to pick large, relatively cheap venues to give her loyal audience the opportunity to see her? All the same, it is a great disappointment that her voice is muffled and that the Empire’s design meant that even I, at six feet two inches high, cannot get a decent view of the stage from my position towards the back.
And Mann is not a terribly engaging performer. Her striking looks give her great stage presence, but she does little else to make the primarily visual experience of live music work for her. Her between-song chit chat, such as it was, revealed her to be far more comfortable communicating through her music than ad-libbing to a Mann-hungry London audience. Yet she could have made her material speak so much more clearly had she had the courage of her convictions and used the “concept” nature of her new album (her own description) to play the songs in chronological order with some brief, explanatory narration between them. As it stood, her attempts to do this by interspersing the new material with older crowd-pleasers such as Amateur and Save Me (for which she still appears to bear a grudge against Phil Collins, who beat her to the Oscar for Best Song in 2000) meant that every time she said “And now back to our story”, it made the album appear kitsch and vaguely comical.
Mann’s solid reputation on record means she has no problem pulling the A-list as well as us mortals to her party. Early in the gig, she told us how gutted she was that one of her TV heroes, Ricky Gervais, had attended the previous night’s concert without ‘coming round’ afterwards – she had therefore missed the opportunity to say hello to an idol of hers, as well as a fellow boxing enthusiast. As I left, after she was summoned to her second encore by the baying crowd, I stepped on the foot of Gervais’s collaborator Stephen Merchant, towering at the back. Mann’s understated, thoughtful and, above all, beautiful folk-rock may act as a magnet, bringing celebrities with good taste to her gigs, but to do her audience and her material justice she really needs to think harder about the most suitable setting for her poetry.