There is no doubt that a show headlined by Aimee Mann and featuring Jonathan Coulton as the opener is going to be a good time, but as Mann told the crowd, you can expect a lot of depressing songs in the setlist. It’s a forgone conclusion given Mann’s storied career as a songwriter that doesn’t shy away from confessional lyrics. Her latest album Mental Illness revolves around that eponymous theme. So it makes sense that Aimee Mann’s musical talents rang truest and deepest on an evening as rainy and cold as this past Saturday was at Park West.
Before falling into Mann’s excellent performance, the crowd was treated to Jonathan Coulton’s inviting and hilarious songwriting skills. Coulton is no stranger at looking within himself and the world around him for his lyrics, but he shifts them to the comical. Whether it’s jokingly skewering his kids for ruining his life in the best way possible in “You Ruined Everything”, the love hate relationship with the warehouse furniture store in “Ikea”, or the woeful inner thoughts of a squid turned metaphor in “I Crush Everything”, Coulton finds beautifully unique ways of getting to the heart of the songs. By joking around these topics he reveals their truest intentions, in these cases being that you’ll always love your kids, sometimes you need a bookcase named Billy, and everyone (even giant squids) can relate to feeling down on themselves sometimes.
The biggest highlights in Coulton’s set came when he tackled his latest album Solid State, a sci-fi themed concept album/comic book about how love and humanity will save the world. It’s the kind of elaborate concept that only Coulton could deliver. The songs jump between sincere moments like “Your Tattoo”, a love letter to his wife’s not so well thought out tattoo and deep digs at internet trolls (including trolls of the presidential variety) in “Brave”. Aimee Mann came out to assist in two of the new songs’ performances, something that Coulton lauded her for even as they joked around on stage. Their banter and chemistry worked so well (I can now never separate Coulton from Mann’s introduction of him late in the evening as Easy Rollin’ Jonny Coulton), giving songs “Pictures of Cats” and “All This Time” in particular a great depth.
The collaboration between the two performers stretched into the middle of Mann’s set, with Coulton performing alongside her for a few of the songs the two wrote on Mental Illness. These moments of give and take between them felt incredibly natural, as if their respective talents should have always been adjacent to one another. “Rollercoasters” immediately feels like a synthesis of the two musicians, equally sharing the humor and seriousness of the song. Although “Goose Snow Cone” is credited only to Mann, its vibe feels so close to that of Coulton’s that his presence amplified the song’s melancholy birth from the songs adorable starting line.
“Good For Me” saw Mann take to the piano, an instrument she admitted was not her favorite to play on. “All the keys look alike” she loudly exclaimed as Coulton joked about inventing a piano with more discernible multicolored keys. To add to the silliness, Mann proceeded to talk about the origin of the song’s opening lines: “What a waste of a smoke machine/took the taste of the dopamine/and left me high and dry.” “The most Aimee Mann lyrics ever” shes says, only to reveal they were written by Coulton. The two share a share laugh and dive into the song, but not before Mann jokingly shouted “Fuck Little Jonny Coulton”, another nickname I’ll never be able to uncouple from Coulton.
When Mann wasn’t joking around or performing her newest songs, she devoted her time to an impressive range of her catalog. With a career as long and consistent as Mann’s, it seemed like every song had a section of the crowd cheering it on as their personal favorite. “Labrador” from Charmer drew many in as Mann’s voice let everyone in on the song’s tale of a one-sided and abusive relationship. Similarly “The Moth”, which trades the unfortunate loyalty of “Labrador” for empty desire of faux romantic flame, had the crowd motionless in their attentiveness.
Mann’s performances dropped the wilder moments of her arrangements in favor of a more intimate and warm ambiance, which her band followed along with wonderfully. It’s safe to say that this slower and more or less acoustic leaning show allowed Mann’s song to truly reveal themselves, giving space for her voice and lyricism to breathe. Her songs always feel so personal and real, acting like cathartic confessionals that people relate to on a very deep level.
I (and a majority of the crowd) definitely felt it as the opening chords of “Save Me” came to fruition. It’s likely the most obvious song for any fan of Mann to gush over, but that didn’t matter as the words “you look like/a perfect fit/for a girl in need/of tourniquet” gentle left her and entered our ears. The crowd’s enthusiasm for the song was only matched by their reverence for it, quieting down to absorb Mann’s emotional and powerful performance. Her setlist was so well crafted, giving the audience such a journey that every song that followed “Save Me” was met with that same deserving reaction.
Once the customary wait between the set proper and encore elapsed, Mann and her band returned to finish of the evening. Her deft fingers leisurely strummed cords that eventually found themselves forming into “One” , the Harry Nilsson cover she performed with Jon Brion on the Magnolia soundtrack. It was the first of what would be a trio of Magnolia related songs that Mann would use to close out the set. The crowd’s cheers rose then settled to become even more attentive than before. She followed “One” with the bittersweet advice of “Wise Up” and finished off with the magnificently appropriate “Deathly”. The evening’s theme of depressing songs underlined by beautiful melodies held strong with these final moments adding some relief. “Now that I’ve met you/would you object/to never seeing each other again,” sings Mann at the start of the final ballad, as if taking the penultimate songs of the evening’s meaning to heart. While the crowd surely agreed with that sentiment in terms of bad relationships and the horrid people that cause them, the same could not be said of the musicians who graced the stage that night. After such a warm and inviting night, we definitely would like to see them again.
All photos by Julian Ramirez