WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
You might be—as I am—a devoted Aimee Mann fan from the Til Tuesday days of "Voices Carry," when her uniquely powerful voice probably beguiled you with its curious mixture of raw emotion and bristling self-confidence. From those days of heady Top 40 radio play, Aimee Mann has matured into an even more captivating solo talent, exploring a deeply personal, alternative mode of musical expression. Through records such as Whatever, I'm With Stupid, the soundtrack to P.T. Anderson's epic Magnolia, Bachelor No. 2, and her recent Lost in Space, she's traveled a somewhat thorny path through the music industry, enduring thoughtless studio execs and career setbacks, and ultimately eschewing the frustrations of an uncaring industry and actually founding her own label.
From Aimee Mann's own SuperEgo Records comes this splendid DVD/CD set—entitled Aimee Mann: Live at St. Ann's Warehouse—containing an 80-minute concert, recorded July 22nd, 23rd, and 24th, 2004, in Brooklyn, New York. If you've ever attended an Aimee Mann show, you understand the soulful intimacy that she can achieve, as if by magic, at the edge of that moody, underlit stage. Backed by a strong, ably complementary band—made up of guitarist Julian Coryell, bassist Paul Bryan, keyboardist Jebin Bruni, and drummer John Sands—Aimee exudes a soft, fragile ache in one song, and an earnest bray of emotion in the next. And it's all bathed in a moving, almost mournful wash of humanity and intellectual beauty. She provides a near-perfect combination of voice presence and sharp-as-a-tack songwriting, adding up to one of the most prominent female vocalists on the scene today.
This DVD contains one of the finest concerts I've seen on disc—not only for the quality of the music but also for the sheer class of the presentation. As I detail in the video section below, the image quality of this independently released DVD is nothing short of eye-popping, a high-def marvel that drops you right on the stage with Aimee and her band. It's got a glossiness and depth to it that satisfies in ways that few concert presentations can muster. The surround-sound presentation is just short of awesome, anchoring you in the middle of the band's efforts. All of this in service of echoing the experience of the live show, and although nothing on recorded video can really match a live Aimee Mann show, this disc gets about as close as possible. As Aimee herself might say, in her frequently witty between-song banter, it's "so fuckin' awesome." Yeah, she ain't afraid to tell it like it is, and that's what I love about her and her music.
The concert's set list is as follows:
1. The Moth (from Lost in Space)
2. Calling It Quits (from Bachelor No. 2)
3. Sugarcoated (from I'm With Stupid)
4. Going Through the Motions (from her forthcoming King of the Jailhouse)
5. Humpty Dumpty (from Lost in Space)
6. Amateur (from I'm With Stupid)
7. Wise Up (from the Magnolia soundtrack)
8. Save Me (from the Magnolia soundtrack)
9. Stupid Thing (from Whatever)
10. Pavlov's Bell (from Lost in Space)
11. Long Shot (from I'm With Stupid)
12. 4th of July (from Whatever)
13. Red Vines (from Bachelor No. 2)
14. Invisible Ink (from Lost in Space)
15. King of the Jailhouse (from her forthcoming King of the Jailhouse)
16. Deathly (from Bachelor No. 2)
The included CD (fastened inside the Amray case) offers a subset of the previous set list but also includes a bonus song in That's Just What You Are, from I'm With Stupid:
1. The Moth
3. Going Through the Motions
5. Wise Up
6. Save Me
7. Stupid Thing
8. That's Just What You Are
9. Pavlov's Bell
10. Long Shot
11. 4th of July
12. King of the Jailhouse
What would have been really cool is if they'd have offered a DVD-A disc in this set instead of a CD! Maybe next time.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Now, I'm not a reviewer prone to hyperbole, but this image is the finest I've ever seen in a concert presentation. The detail and sharpness of this 1.85:1 anamorphic-widescreen (yes!) transfer is exquisite, giving the presentation a high-definition depth and gleam. Colors have a gorgeous liquid appearance, particularly the strong, deep blues. Faring not quite as well are the deep reds, which appear the tiniest bit unstable. Flesh tones appear right on, and overall, this is an incredibly realistic effort.
That being said, there are a few problems. The first you might notice is that in some backgrounds, some fairly significant blocking is occurring, especially in horizontal panning. I also couldn't ignore some edge halos—for example, surrounding the microphone stand against Mann's white jacket—and some aliasing along diagonal lines.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
You get two sound options on the disc. The first is a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, and it's the preferred home-theater experience. Audio fidelity is top-notch, and Mann's voice is spread effectively across the front for added dimension. There's a very pleasing richness and fullness to this audio presentation, enveloping you effortlessly. For the most part, instrumentation is placed effectively across the front soundstage, giving the concert a realistic—as opposed to gimmicky—aura. However, in several instances, a particular instrument is noticeably given a laser-like focus in one channel (say, a guitar solo on the front-right), when I'd rather the instrument was also effused slightly into the center or the right rear for more subtle placement. Bass is punchy and effective. Adding to the effect of the venue, the rear channels give you a subtle echo of the performance up front, and when songs end, they rattle with crowd applause. Nicely done.
The second option is a PCM stereo option, which is essentially CD-quality stereo. It sounds just fine as a front-soundstage presentation, but if you've got the means, definitely opt for the immersive 5.1 track.
The disc doesn't offer any lyrics subtitles—a feature that I'd like to see more of on concert DVDs.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
In the Special Features section, you'll find one excellent supplement and a couple that are just okay. Let's start with the best one.
That would be the 20-minute anamorphic-widescreen featurette entitled Interviews, in which Aimee Mann (separately) and the entire band—John Sands (drums), Paul Bryan (bass), Julian Coryell (guitar), Jebin Bruni (keyboards)—talks about the experiences and challenges of touring, their understanding of their fans, the success of the Magnolia soundtrack, the quality of Mann's songwriting, their struggles with record labels, Aimee's personality on stage, the band members' favorites of Aimee's songs, the differences of audiences night to night, and their approach to cover songs. For the fan (like myself), it's a wonderful, laidback discussion, and I really enjoyed the personalities of all involved.
Next is Behind the Scenes, a 3-minute montage of amateur film taken on the tour bus and backstage at St. Ann's Warehouse in New York, as well as some shots around town. I was somewhat disappointed that this wasn't something more meaty, but it's fun for what it is.
Finally, you get a Slideshow, which is a collection of photos and posters memorializing the St. Ann's Warehouse dates. It amounts to maybe 30 photos.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
A very fine concert DVD, Aimee Mann: Live at St. Ann's Warehouse puts you right on stage with Aimee Mann in a presentation that offers spectacular image and sound quality. I am pleasantly surprised by this thoughtfully produced DVD/CD set, which is straight from Mann's own label. Supplements are merely okay, with one highlight, but you can't go wrong with this set, which is also attractively priced.