Club Helsinki Hudson
April 18, 2013
Review and photos by Seth Rogovoy
(HUDSON, N.Y.) – Aimee Mann is hard to pin down. She’s a singer-songwriter, for sure, in that she writes her own material and sings – both very well. But her songs are not singer-songwritery in a folky sense. Her songs are well-crafted compositions filled with pop hooks and melodies that are instantly pleasing and pull you along, and with lyrical hooks that are equal to the music, but she’s by no means a pop artist, “Voices Carry” notwithstanding. Her original sensibility veers from early-1980s New Wave – she garnered her earliest and greatest public fame as the frontwoman of MTV darlings ‘Til Tuesday – to 1970s Southern California soft-rock, but there’s a dark undercurrent – and a lot of minor-key chords – in most of her compelling material.
It could just be that Mann is an utter original, an idiosyncratic, sui generis musical artist, which is what was on display at Club Helsinki Hudson on Thursday night in a display of Mann’s wit, intelligence, musicality, virtuosity, craftsmanship, and honesty. Mann herself hinted at a lot of this in an interview with the English newspaper the Telegraph earlier this year when she named Leonard Cohen, Stephen Sondheim, Fiona Apple, Jimmy Webb and her husband Michael Penn as songwriters she admires. It’s a diverse group, but the common thread is a devotion to craft, putting music and lyrics together on an equal footing, and entertainment value.
So that’s what Mann is and does, and that’s what she did in her generous performance at Helsinki, backed by an able crew on bass, drums, guitar and keyboards (herself alternately handling acoustic and electric guitar and electrics bass duties) and joined on a number of tunes by rock singer-songwriter Ted Leo, who warmed up the crowd with his own set of equally intelligent and inspired pop-rock tunes.
The 52-year-old Mann played numbers from throughout her three-decade career, and in the process staked a claim to progress as well as her own, solid approach. Her singing is itself a work of craft and art – she takes advantage of the slightly pinched, nasal quality of her voice and plays that like an instrument when the song calls for it, but jettisons it for a richer, fuller sound that can be bright, sneering, or soulful, as she wishes.
Her most recent album is called Charmer, and she most certainly is one onstage, having mastered the art of winning over a crowd by creating the illusion of informality and spontaneity (even muffing a few song intros on what apparently was the first night of her current U.S. tour). For an artist with such keen, Jimmy Webb-like craftsmanship, she sure knows how to keep things organic and real.
She also knows how to entertain a crowd, poking fun at her musicians, her friend and collaborator, Ted Leo, but mostly at herself, egging on the audience by downplaying her sex appeal in mocking her outfit – the impossibly leggy six-footer claimed to be wearing shorts in public for the first time ever, as well as heels – and calling her greatest hit, “Voices Carry,” dumb, before playing the rarely performed number as her final encore.
It was the perfect kind of show for Helsinki Hudson, and showcased the venue as much as the performer – a place where entertainers and audience can both relax while engaging in the serious work of theatrical show business in a direct, engagingly personal manner.