Aimee Mann drifts into songs of holiday cheer | AspenTimes.com

Aimee Mann drifts into songs of holiday cheer

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Singer Aimee Mann brings her second annual Holiday Tour, with guests Nellie McKay, Patrick Park, Morgan Murphy and Paul F. Tompkins, to the Wheeler Opera House this week. (Sheryl Nields)

Making a Christmas album wasn’t Aimee Mann’s idea; as she recalls, the concept originated with her producer, Paul Bryan. And when the idea was bounced off Mann, she treated it like a stale fruitcake.

“I said, ‘Really?’ That seems very counterintuitive. Super-corny,” she said.

Indeed, Mann didn’t seem the sort for a cuddling-by-the-fireplace sort of album. A former punk rocker, Mann had evolved into a singer-songwriter with a penchant for the dark corners. And she hasn’t grown sentimental in recent years: Two of her more recent projects have been the soundtrack to “Magnolia,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s searing 1999 film about damaged souls; and 2005’s “The Forgotten Arm,” a song cycle about a couple coping with addiction.

Mann didn’t have the songs for an album of original material, but she wanted a project. So she engaged with Bryan in a discussion of what kind of Christmas album they might make, and began seeing possibilities beyond the usual sonic Christmas cheer wrapped in tinkling green-and-red.

“The things we liked were ‘The Charlie Brown Christmas Special,'” said Mann from Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, singer-songwriter Michael Penn. “It had the music by Vince Guaraldi, and the melancholy of it ” Charlie Brown walking around, saying how Christmas has been commercialized. Linus, talking about Christmas being spooky. We wanted to capture that kind of feeling.”

Mann’s take on musical Christmas, released last year, has a flavor all its own. There is the title: “Another Drifter in the Snow,” taken from the song, “Calling on Mary,” which she co-wrote with Bryan. The cover would strike fear in Linus; Mann is atop a plastic reindeer, whose horns give Mann, a blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty, the look of the devil. The CD opens with “Whatever Happened to Christmas” and closes with “Calling on Mary,” both of which place Christmas in the context of failed romance. There’s also a take on the bah-humbug classic, “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch.” Instead of bells and swelling strings, there is a complex background of electric guitars, organ and banjo.

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But Mann is a genuine fan of classic Christmas albums by Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra. “One More Drifter in the Snow,” for its shortage of sentimentality, is a beautiful, emotional work. There’s moodiness, but no irony to Mann’s versions of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

The album spun off into a tour, the second edition of which stops at the Wheeler Opera House on Friday, Dec. 7. Aimee Mann’s Christmas Tour is also a step apart from the norm. Her special guests include two comedians ” Paul F. Tompkins and Morgan Murphy ” neither known for their gentle brand of humor. (Murphy, as the Hanukkah Fairy, does a rap song that includes at least one four-letter word.) The musical guest is singer Nellie McKay, whose latest album earns an “Explicit Lyrics” label.

“I’m hearkening back to the Christmas shows I’d see on TV as a kid. I associate those with variety shows, and variety shows I associate with comedians,” said Mann, who also directed a film, featuring Janeane Garofalo and Ben Stiller, as part of the show.

In standard Christmas style, there will be a communal vibe to the event. All of the guests are Mann’s friends; Mann and McKay will duet on “Christmastime,” a song from “One More Drifter in the Snow,” written by Mann’s husband.

And Mann won’t include in the set list a song, “I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up for Christmas,” from “The Forgotten Arm.”

“That was taken directly from a conversation I had with a friend, a drug addict, who was out in the streets,” said Mann. “He said he wanted to clean up so he could go home for the holidays, and then go right back out on the streets. And the implication was until he died.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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