Skyline Stage; Sat 30
Aimee Mann's well-documented mid-'90s struggles with her former record labels— and ultimate vindication over them—threaten to overshadow the emotional ups and downs of the characters she creates in her music. It's a challenge she dealt with up through 2000's Bachelor No. 2, her first release for Superego—the label she's called home ever since. Now, with the legal drama long behind her, riding on the lukewarm success of 2002's Lost in Space, Mann is poised to face the music—literally—and have her songwriting speak for itself.
In some ways, she's succeeded: The Forgotten Arm, her fifth album, is a mini–rock opera forming a single narrative arc with fully fleshed-out characters, over 12 songs. Mann has ensured her place in future documentaries of rock's dying days as an intelligent and well-liked chronicler of the disaffected middle class. But Arm, which was recorded live in only five days, has a warmth that Mann's own songs and voice, lack. Expert production by Joe Henry emanates like a hearth, lending pitch-perfect brass, and the authoritative drumming of session pro Victor Indrizzo (Macy Gray, Rufus Wainwright, Shakira). But where Mann's musical instincts in the overall aesthetic shape of Arm couldn't be smarter, her fastidious rhymes, '70s-rock-by-the-book chords and one-step-from-depression voice are far from well conceived.
In the immediate, communal spirit that live performance can create, it's possible that these songs, along with Mann's deep and layered catalog, will take on a different resonance than on her record. But first, Mann will have to accept that it's not always the smart singers we eventually come back to—it's the confessional ones.—Matthew Lurie