Some You Just Believe In

It started out on a high note. A swirly, syrupy, recorded sax-and-strings intro with colored lights reminiscent of the game show set in Magnolia. A dapper band walked on. And then there she was: diffident, bemused, flipping her long blond hair over her shoulder, tallish and skinny with a red shirt and black guitar, trying to break your heart again.

Fantastic damage: Aesop Rock and El-P look to the future.
photo by Jennifer S. Altman
Fantastic damage: Aesop Rock and El-P look to the future.

Aimee Mann's show at the Beacon last month was like a date with an old crush: full of vague, sweet, unresolved feelings, but inevitably tinged with disappointment. The lush melancholy her music invokes in the privacy of your rainy-windowed bedroom was diminished in the 2800-seat theater, washed out by the starlights rotating off the disco ball. Save for a few loungey space-pop fillips by the extremely able keyboardist, her arrangements barely departed from the recordings, and the nearly uniform tempos lulled, sometimes dragged. The fucked-up sound mix didn't help, blurring her sharp-witted lyrics even as the audience mouthed along (Aimee Mann fans are too respectful to sing).

"There's lots more people here than I ought to be playing for," Mann confessed disarmingly, if correctly, a few songs in. "It's gonna be one of those nights where I start forgetting stuff and breaking strings." Sure enough, she muffed the words to her 1995 hit "Ray" even after inviting a thrilled female fan onstage to whisper them in her ear. But somehow, as the night wore on, we only felt closer. Buzzing on caffeine, Aimee riffed nervously with the audience in her low, dorky voice ("I love rock n' roll? I live rock n' roll?? I am fuckin' rock n' roll! Is that what you meant to say?"), and told how her bitter-rock-star song "You Could Make a Killing" was actually inspired by a searing crush on Noel Gallagher. By the second encore, when she got everyone to clap along to the old "I Should've Known," the whole thing was more than good enough for people like me. —Anya Kamenetz

Change Is Gonna Come

By all cynical accounts, operating a volunteer-based community choir that preaches change to the modern age seems neither artistically challenging nor financially appealing. But tell that to the Polyphonic Spree. And tell that to David Brown, the founder and choirmaster of New York's 100-person Metro Mass Choir, who's obsessed with conveying his non-denominational take on faith. The MMC's holiday show Friday, December 20, at Town Hall opened with a film montage of kids proselytizing change, featured a yuletide medley sing-along, and closed with Broadway diva Daphne Rubin-Vega and an all-female African drum circle leading a rumba-fied take on the gospel standard "Children Go" that threatened to turn the theater into a dance party for the older set. To get with the MMC, you gotta internalize "All You Need Is Love" as part mantra, part stand-up routine. Brown, the son of a Southern Baptist preacher, has a minister's insistence when addressing the flock—whether he's goofing on his own homosexuality, or telling a story about racial sensitivity. He's funny and pulls few punches (though his oratory could still use a stronger jab).

It's the choir that makes the message flow. Non-professional singers whose body language betrays the moment the songs simply take them over, the Metro Mass are a force in numbers alone. But Brown's arrangements give them something progressive to shout. Tying Bruce Springsteen's post-9-11 lament "Into the Fire" to the heart of "Amazing Grace," or recasting a Phil Collins tune as an excursion into Graceland—vocally raging, the drum circle rolling—are joyful acts of one-world populism, staged by a pickup crew. And when you see a petite, middle-aged woman unironically sporting a Berliniamsburg haircut, contorting to sing a Phil Collins tune with all the power she can muster, you have to imagine her soul's somehow involved. —Piotr Orlov

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