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Calling shotgun

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It is fitting that low-key but talented performers Aimee Mann and Michael Penn met at an informal show at Los Angeles' Largo several years back. The now-famous club (profiled recently in Rolling Stone), where guests like Elliott Smith quietly take the stage, provides a supportive, casual atmosphere for songwriters and comedians. During their weekly gig, Mann and Penn developed a rapport they brought to their current "acoustic vaudeville" tour, which made a stop at Durham's Carolina Theatre last Friday. I spoke to Penn at the couple's Los Angeles home last week. We talked about how different the musical climate is from the '80s, when he and Mann--with her band 'Til Tuesday--got their start.

"Music served a very different function back then," Penn said. "People were actually interested in it and it wasn't just wallpaper. It seems like the corporate structure has created a reality where anybody with any ounce of intelligence goes, 'Well ... that's what music is? I guess music's not that great, but I'll buy it 'cause it's kind of cool to have around, but I'm not going to be passionate about it.'"

And when "passion" butts heads with marketing honchos, the artist rarely wins. That's why the success of Mann--who bought back her latest album, Bachelor #2, from Interscope (they didn't hear a "single") and released it on her own SuperEgo imprint--is such a cause célebre for music fans. Penn, following his '89 hit with "No Myth," wandered the fringes of cult fame. Held "prisoner" on RCA for four years following his second release, '92's Free-For-All, Penn became disillusioned with the industry.

In a happy twist of fate, he was contacted a few years ago by filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson to score the incidental music for Hard Eight. "He [Anderson] wrote Hard Eight while listening to Free-For-All," explains Penn. "He was absolutely determined that I score that movie. So he tracked me down." Penn also scored Anderson's Boogie Nights. (That's him playing the disgusted recording engineer while a coked-up Dirk Diggler flounders in the studio.) Penn introduced Anderson to Mann and her music, and the rest is history.

Ironically, with Mann riding a wave of critical respect and support since the Magnolia soundtrack, these truly independent artists have hitched a ride on Warner Brothers' publicity machine to promote their current solo albums: Bachelor #2 and Penn's MP4 (Days Since a Lost Time Accident). Penn is negotiating to buy back MP4 from Epic "They pressed some up, put some in stores and that's about it," he said resignedly.

Although neither artist (especially Penn) has toured much recently, the husband-wife duo decided to tread the boards as a team, in a show highlighting new material and classics. The whole idea of "vaudeville"-- a convivial sort of romp, schtick humor, lighthearted fare--is used ironically as Penn and Mann spin their very adult tales of self-examination, doubt and longing: firefly epiphanies that flicker briefly to light the dark uncertainty that mars "modern" life. The bill is rounded out with a comedian friend.

At the Carolina, the deliciously tasteless Patton Oswald opened a half-hour comedy set targeting Los Angeles living ("it's a huge demon cock that you have to suck every day"), retards, Paz, and Hollyrock mega-creep Robert Evans, author of the unintentionally brilliant, smarmy, coke-dusted memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture. To say Oswald broke the ice would be like saying that a tall Everclear on the rocks helps start the evening.

Oswald ain't delicate but he's real, a realism that carries through in Mann and Penn's unabashedly honest songwriting. By letting Oswald take over the stage banter, Mann and Penn were free to let their painfully personal songs speak for themselves. The duo--backed by longtime Penn sidekick Patrick Warren (keyboards), Buddy Judge (guitar) and John Sands (drums)--traded songs and instruments, achieving a lush orchestral sound from Warren's stellar mellotron parts.

Opening with "It's Not Safe," Mann's pure bell-like tones resonated through the theater. Penn, a craftsman who opts for the scenic route melody-wise, shone on "Me Around" and the Beatle-esque "Perfect Candidate." As mature performers, their vocal dynamics and control--whether soloing or backing each other up--kept the audience of 30-somethings wowed. "Wise Up," from the Magnolia soundtrack, was introduced as "that song from the Tom Cruise movie"--and other moments of humor throughout the night balanced well against the dark tone of the music.

With such two heavy personalities, I asked Penn who's the optimist of the duo. "I think we vacillate," he said dryly. "The first one who chimes in with 'I'm the negative one today,' the other has to be the optimist." He laughed. "It's like calling shotgun." EndBlock

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