Mann's 'Forgotten Arm' can't reach her earlier heights


August 1, 2005

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

Virginia-born, Los Angeles-based Aimee Mann remains one of the most inspired singers and songwriters on the current pop scene, and I'm not saying that just because she has taken up boxing and appears to be ready to go 10 rounds with Hilary Swank.

The 45-year-old artist has created a sexy but self-empowered and extremely literary body of songs on five solo albums since 1993, and she has benefitted in the past from collaborating with artists in other mediums: Witness Mann's brilliant contributions to the soundtrack for her fan Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 film "Magnolia."

Unfortunately, her latest release, "The Forgotten Arm," sinks under the weight of its pretensions. Mann describes the 12-track disc as an extended story-song, or a novel in musical form, and it follows two losers -- a drug-addicted boxer and Vietnam vet and his small-town girlfriend -- as they cross the country in search of a better life but wind up losing everything in Vegas.

There's nothing inherently wrong with the idea of a concept album, and you'd have thought that if anyone could pull off a good one, it would have been Mann. But the problems start with the plot, which sounds like a Lifetime Channel combination of "Leaving Las Vegas" and "Rebel Without a Cause"; continue with the fact that Mann has nothing particularly interesting to say about these characters, and are made worse by the monotonous nature of many of her new melodies.

Saturday night at Skyline Stage on Navy Pier, Mann wisely avoided the "artist with a new concept album" cliche of presenting "The Forgotten Arm" in its entirety. Instead, she sprinkled songs such as "Going Through the Motions" and "Little Bombs" throughout her 75-minute set. But the new material didn't benefit from being interspersed with older winners such as "Humpty Dumpty" or "Driving Sideways" any more than it would have if she'd rendered it en masse.

Since the old days when she avoided talking onstage, Mann has developed into a witty and winning performer. She introduced a sampling of tunes from "Magnolia" with a crack that she experienced a career high "losing an Oscar to Phil Collins and a cartoon monkey love song" ("You'll Be in My Heart" from 1999's "Tarzan"). But even she seemed unenthused whenever she returned to "The Forgotten Arm" with a hackneyed, "Our story continues ..." introduction.

Mann is such a singular talent that she is incapable of delivering a completely bad show; it's just that I've seen her give much stronger ones in the past. And Saturday's gig did have the saving grace of her inventive and hard-driving five-piece band: As the former leader of the New Wave group 'Til Tuesday, Mann has never forsaken her rock 'n' roll roots, consistently choosing musicians who push her, and this is a lesson many other singer-songwriters (including former hometown heroine Liz Phair) should learn.

Opening for Mann were three of the five members of the Minneapolis pop band the Honeydogs, whom the headliner credited -- or blamed, as the case may be -- with inspiring the story-song structure of her latest album via their 2004 concept effort, "10,000 Years."

Alas, that disc is even less successful than "The Forgotten Arm," and minus their rhythm section at Navy Pier, Honeydogs leader Adam Levy and his bandmates were simply insufferable, entirely too eclectic for their own good, and not nearly the groundbreaking songwriters they seem to think they are.