In these times of constant redefinition, the easy listening genre is beginning to represent the acoustic storytellers, rather than just glossed over elevator music (You know who you are, Tesh and Kenny G).
Two artists who fall into this nouveau easy listening category are Aimee Mann and Duncan Sheik.
Friday, Mann and Sheik will perform at the Tampa Theatre, but being tourmates isn’t the only thing these practitioners of mildness have in common. Both Mann and Sheik are in the midst of a career rebirth of sorts, climbing out of the rubble that is one-hit-wonderdom.
Mann, a 20-year music industry veteran, broke onto the music scene in 1985 with the band ‘Til Tuesday.
The band’s big hit, “Voices Carry,” (that’s right, it wasn’t sung by Wilson Phillips) put it on the musical map. But after ‘Til Tuesday’s next two albums garnered sub-par sales Mann and company were dropped from Epic records and subsequently split up.
The light at the end of this tunnel, though, was that Mann’s songwriting ability had blossomed as her band’s popularity withered. So, when it was time to go solo, Mann had the tools to make the jump.
Mann’s career crawled along until 1999, when up-and-coming director P.T. Anderson provided her with the biggest break of her solo career.
Anderson, whose emotional filmmaking was displayed in his breakout movie Boogie Nights, happened to be a huge Mann fan and was about to go back to the drawing board for a new film.
After listening to a lot of Mann he decided to “sit down and write an adaptation of Mann songs,” according to Mann’s Web site. That film was the acclaimed opus Magnolia.
The film ignited Mann’s career by showcasing her cover of “One” and the original song “Save Me,” which is the basis for an entire portion of the film. And it probably didn’t hurt the song’s popularity when Tom Cruise belted out the tune.
Since then, Mann released the personal Bachelor No. 2, which was involved in a record-label battle a la Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which caused her cult following only to grow.
Sheik may have never had a big hit in a band, but an early pop hit caused his solo career to suffer a fate similar to that of Mann.
“When I first came out I had no idea about things,” Sheik said. “Now I have more of a handle on navigating music’s stormy seas.”
Sheik’s self-titled debut album spawned the lightweight bubble-gum hit “Barely Breathing,” which, although it made him famous, typecast the singer/songwriter as another substance-less pop balladeer.
“I was happy to have a song in the top 40, but it wasn’t a goal of mine at all,” Sheik said.
After his one-hit-wonder status blew over, he began his second life as the acoustic musician he always wanted to be with the 2001 release Phantom Moon.
The album, a departure from his poppy debut, was a darkly crafted bunch of songs written with the NYC playwright Steven Sater.
“We were both practicing Buddhists in New York when we met,” Sheik said. “Our collaboration evolved song by song, and I decided to make an album out of it.”
Phantom Moon not only led to Sheik dabbling further in the world of NYC theater, but also marked his departure from the world of the shallow pop mainstream.
Sheik, who cites one of his greatest influences as the late Jeff Buckley (they even shared the same drummer), has been on tour since fall, supporting his new release Daylight, which showcases the sunnier side of his songwriting ability.
“With Daylight, I was trying to strike for music to feed my own self-indulgence and also what an audience is willing to put up with,” Sheik said.
Sheik, who calls his crowd-pleasing cover of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” a live “staple,” complements Mann’s sound well.
But that isn’t the only reason Sheik joined his second tour in a row halfway through.
“I like being able to get myself in front of different audiences and trying to win them over,” Sheik said.
Both artists’ melancholic styles should make for a show with enough somber and reflective songwriting to provide empathy for even the most heartbroken of audience members.
Contact Nick Margiasso at email@example.com