Comic Relief

Aimee Mann's cartoon collaboration

AIMEE MANN at the Palais Royale (1601 Lakeshore West), Friday (November 8). $27.50. 416-870-8000.

Rating: NNNNN

it’s the 2000 academy awards, the yearly celebration where Hollywood’s deeply shallow show off over-the-top designer duds, borrowed jewels and too much cleavage.In the middle of syrupy symphonic cinematic themes, a defiantly de-glammed femme with lank blond hair and a beat-up acoustic guitar strolls onstage. Eyes averted from the camera and the crowd, Aimee Mann offers up a deadpan musical plea that’s particularly powerful in its understated desperation.

She’s singing Save Me, the big tune from her hit soundtrack to P.T. Anderson’s depressing epic, Magnolia. Watching the rapt crowd, you realize they’re the emotionally disabled freaks Mann’s pitying in the mournful tune. It’s a classic Mann moment, steeped in irony.

Seeing the anti-establishment cynic onstage at the Oscars is funny enough that the tune she delivers is a cryptic critique of that community is even better. But what makes the unintentional ridiculousness of the scene hit home is Mann’s characteristic deadpan alto, a shadowy sucker-punch of pure emotion in the context of ostentatious diva crooners.

“There are a lot of singers who really are a little too in love with their own voices,” Mann offers, trying to explain her trademark delivery.

“I also find it very distracting. Then, of course, you listen to the song, and it’s usually not very good. I want people to be emotionally moved by the song, not by me the singer, not to listen to me and think, “Oh, she’s so emotional! She sounds so sad and angry!’ That sort of pyrotechnic singing is like fake emotion, whereas a good song is never phony — it couldn’t be even if you sang it a million times, ’cause it wasn’t phony when it was written.

“When I’m writing, I never think, “This will be great when we get it in the studio and put a bunch of instruments on it and really sell it.’ It’s gotta be good sitting there in the hotel room when you’re kinda croaky and out of tune and the guitar’s not really tuned up properly. It has to be compelling even under the worst of circumstances, ’cause you’ll play that song under the worst of circumstances, as I’m quickly finding out.”

Mann’s holed up in a hotel room in London, England, as we speak, riding out a half-assed press junket. It was supposed to be a semi-tour to promote her new album, Lost In Space (Superego), but politics with her British label and booking deadlines got muddled, so she’s stuck playing acoustic sets on TV shows instead of in intimate clubs.

That type of bureaucratic foul-up is part of what prompted her to go it on her own. First, former label Imago folded just as her first solo disc, Whatever, dropped then Geffen released follow-up I’m With Stupid but gave Mann the runaround after a merger with Interscope. So Lost In Space is Mann’s second indie disc.

Long-time producer-collaborator Jon Brion is nowhere in sight, although Mann claims it was merely an artistic relationship that ran its course. These days Brion’s scoring films for P.T. Anderson and Mann’s enjoying more musical growth and independence. (FYI: She says the Magnolia collaboration was a great opportunity but a one-time project.)

Lost In Space is an awesome illustration of the benefits of artistic freedom. The themes of addiction (drug and otherwise), alienation and helplessness aren’t exactly a commercial gold mine, but they make for some heartbreaking tunes. Though caustic and dark, the disc is paradoxically beautiful. Plus, the packaging — the lyrics and liner notes include a mini-comic by Drawn & Quarterly mastermind Seth — is perfect, if not the most strategic economic manoeuvre.

“I’m a big fan of Seth’s and thought it’d be a great marriage,” says Mann of the comic. “Seth has these fairly serious themes, introspective stuff that could be interpreted as being somewhat depressing, but in cartoon form. For me, that’s the visual equivalent of writing pop songs with fairly serious themes. I also like it because graphic novels always have a certain subtext. They’re about real things, and are often autobiographical, but as cartoon drawings they’re sort of removed. I like the whole idea of subtext.”

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