In the midst of an ugly battle with her record label, Aimee Mann puts on a graceful show in New York.

Published August 10, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Say what you will about rock critics: There are lots of well-meaning ones out there, valiant but bumbling as they scamper to-and-fro with their flimsy butterfly nets, rushing to the rescue of any artist who might have unjustly fallen through the cracks.

Aimee Mann may have fallen through more holes in the butterfly net than any other singer-songwriter of the '90s. In one way, it seems incomprehensible. Wasn't this supposed to be the decade of the female singer-songwriter? It seemed that any woman willing to spill her guts -- Sarah McLachlan, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Alanis Morissette, Jewel -- sold big. Why not Mann?

But the more you think about it, the more you realize that the moist, clammy climate needed to hatch a Jewel or an Alanis is nothing short of killing for an artist like Mann, who needs lots of light and air and vitriol, maybe in equal measures. Even so, Mann -- who launched her career in the early '80s with 'Til Tuesday, scored one big hit with a terrific song ("Voices Carry") and went on to write and record even better solo material that was beloved by critics but sold poorly -- is hardly a meanie. In her show at Tramps Saturday night, she seemed unusually relaxed and amiable, especially considering that she's currently trying to buy her nearly completed third solo album back from Interscope, after the label showed a decided lack of faith in it. Apparently, Mann knows things could be a lot worse. Last week, en route from Chicago to Ann Arbor, Mich., the van she and her band were traveling in was hit by a drunk driver and flipped over three times. Miraculously, no one was injured, not that day or even the next, when a car the band members were riding in was struck by lightning.

Maybe that was part of the reason Mann and her stripped-down band, featuring keyboards, one additional guitarist and a bass player known only as "Mike" who was recruited from the audience to fill in beautifully on "Stupid Thing" and "Voices Carry," played as relaxed and low-key a show as they did. Mann also seemed to intuit that she was among friends: For all the bitterness she levels against all the record labels that have ever done her wrong, she knows that lack of devotion among her fans has nothing to do with it. She flubbed the beginning of her opening song, "Fourth of July," forgetting the second line. "I like to play to crowds with really low expectations," she later explained wryly.

Although Mann seems to have a bit of a reputation with record-label execs (who, as we all know, are fine judges of character) for being arrogant and difficult, as a performer she knows that her fate lies in the hands of her audience. Her set was heavy on material from her last album, the exceptional "I'm With Stupid" (1995), including "That's Just What You Are" and "It's Not Safe" (which opens with the line "All you want to do is something good/So get ready to be ridiculed and misunderstood"). Mann, who accompanied herself on acoustic guitar most of the evening, has never sounded better; her voice was alternately velvety smooth and bell-like in its clarity. And the new material she unveiled (available on a seven-song "preview" EP for sale at the show, Mann's first step in starting her own label to sell her records directly to the public) is right in line with her earlier records in terms of craftsmanship, groovy sound and gently pointed lyrics. The recorded version of "How Am I Different," off the EP, features that lushly layered, elegant, borrowed-from-the-Beatles sound that Mann has virtually trademarked for herself.

At the risk of making rock critics sound like more noble creatures than they are, I will say that many of them are motivated by a kind of decency at least some of the time. That's why so many of them (myself included) have gone to such great lengths to praise Mann over the years. They're fighting for justice the only way they know how. In their eyes, it seems only fair that artists who do good work should be able to make a decent living from it and earn at least a modicum of recognition.

That's a relatively small favor to ask the gods on Mann's behalf. It just might come together for her yet. After all, she's already been struck by lightning.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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