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Shadow Boxer

Aimee Mann's voice carries through darkness

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With a voice like a knife through warm butter, Aimee Mann conjures images of an ice queen, a bohemian princess of dysfunction and a regal fountain of dejection, desolation and sorrow. Despite the morose nature of her work, Mann's been visible since the early 1980s. You may recall "Voices Carry" by her early group Til Tuesday, a thoughtful, pretty piece of pop, though most remember her once-spiky hair and the pristine voice that stops traffic. Though the songs are sad, the overall result is one of elegance and understanding. Her accompaniment is laid back, clean, spare and relatively tranquil, almost Joni Mitchell-ish -- but with more heft and less jazz.

We spoke recently over the phone about Mann's upcoming performance in Charlotte. Quiet and introspective, she is obviously not enamored of chatting up the press. A spark of interest occurred though, while we discussed boxing, a theme from her latest recording, The Forgotten Arm. The title suggests a boxing trick where one opponent, defending against one arm, forgets the other which seems hidden, but is merely waiting for an opportunity to strike.

The entire CD has a film noir appearance with brilliantly produced art accompanying each cut -- a continuing tale of two misfits, a boxer and his lover. The artwork looks like the 1940s but Mann says it's based in the '70s. Speaking of boxing, Mann explains, "Yes, I have a trainer. So, I follow his boxers. I've been to two fights, both in Vegas. But yeah, definitely, I'm really interested. I watch it."

Aimee Mann's been recording since 1982. Even before that, her life was unusual.

She was kidnapped by her mother while living in hometown Richmond, Va., and taken to England for a year. Maybe it had an effect on her writing and her attitude, since Mann dwells so heavily in the realm of dysfunctional, failed relationships. She left Virginia to attend the highly regarded Berklee School of Music in Boston and there began performing. Mann jokes about her background, explaining, "My Richmond accent combined with my Boston accent cancel each other out." Eventually, she moved to Los Angeles with husband, singer Michael Penn. "We've been in L.A. for 10 years."

In Los Angeles, she nabbed a tiny but memorable role in the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski. She was the character whose dismembered small green toe was discussed throughout the film. "It was a perfect non-acting, acting job. It was really just for fun. I got into it by accident. My friend was the casting director. The dialog was all in German, so I didn't really have to do anything. It was great." Her other dabs at show biz consist of her music inserted into various soundtracks. Her best selling recording came as a result of her soundtrack music in the well received film Magnolia. That brought Mann nominations for an Oscar and three Grammys.

Another on camera, acting project, "was 'Love Monkey.' It was a really cute show about an A & R guy, but was never picked up. It was just shown on VHS." The unfortunately named show concerned a talent scout getting fired from his corporate job and landing with an indie label, a nice parallel to Mann's entire music career. After her big hit in the '80s, she labored unhappily with several majors and eventually bought out her own contract, dismissing major labels forever. As a result, she's lost the ability to sell millions of recordings but, more positively, maintained her credibility and integrity. Selling intelligent music like hers generally does not garner much support within the corporate music world. As a result she's survived with a low-key but actually much longer lasting, more substantial, musical shelf life, doing the music her way. She has her own label called SuperEgo records and works with her own distribution outfit called United Musicians.

Her CD output is impressive with five to date. Titles like I'm With Stupid and Lost In Space are standouts. She thinks her current CD, The Forgotten Arm, is doing well, but she doesn't "really know the numbers. It's distracting to hunt down reviews and sales figures."

The Forgotten Arm is a concept album consisting of a continuing plot, all laid out in a spectacularly designed package. Like many Aimee Mann recordings, there aren't many hooks and definitely no hit singles. But as an overall achievement the album almost rocks -- or rather, it emotes. Using '70s influences like the Kinks and Bowie, she weaves a sorrowful tale of a boxer and his true love. They meet at a Virginia State Fair and the textures, patterns and plot go downhill from there. Along the way down are some sparkling, lustrous tunes.

A typically excellent turn of phrase comes from the tune "Little Bombs":

Life kind of empties out, / Less a deluge than a drought, / Less a giant mushroom cloud / Than an unexploded shell / Inside a cell of the Lenox Hotel.

Produced by North Carolina's Joe Henry, Mann went for a "live in the studio approach and not many overdubs." Henry produced because they're friends. "We work well together. He's funny and he's fun to be with in the studio. He likes to record live and has an unfussy approach." Unfussy indeed, as the CD was recorded in less than a week, in contrast to most major recordings that take weeks or months.

One reason it was recorded quickly was the spare instrumentation -- not much more than guitar, drums, piano, bass, and some stintingly used horns and percussion. The stripped-down production is reflected in Mann's current acoustic tour featuring just two other musicians, acoustic bass player Paul Bryan, who was on the recording, and keyboardist James Edwards, from Boston. Mann says, "I play acoustic guitar and a couple of songs on piano."

Winning over an audience despite themes of desolation and despair is no mean feat, but Mann possesses inordinate skill and talent. Like her song says, she's "Less a giant mushroom cloud, than an unexploded shell."

Aimee Mann appears at the Neighborhood Theatre; David Ford opens; Sept. 21; 8pm; $25; www.neighborhoodtheatre.com.

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