Critics make a fatal mistake when they review the album (or film, or book, or any other objet d’art) that they’d wish an artist had made instead of the one they actually produced. Some fans of one, the other, or the Both were puzzled by the pairing of singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, that champion of beautiful songs chronicling ugly heartbreaks, and Ted Leo, the earnest punk-rock troubadour, but I thought, “Of course!,” and eagerly anticipated a set of angry, hard-hitting, but ultimately irresistible set of smart political pop.
Sure, it’s disappointing that that’s not what we get on the duo’s self-titled debut; The Both merely is a collection of the usual exquisitely crafted tunes these two give us, this time written as a tag team. The tunes are perhaps a little more rocking on Mann’s part, and a little more tuneful on Leo’s, but in general this is a smooth merger of two strong voices and a partnership that spurs two sharp writers to hone their best lines even more. Mann’s had this before of course, with her husband Michael Penn; it’s more of a revelation for Leo, who’s always been the center of all of his projects.
The musical coupling isn’t without its missteps, however, chief among them the dreadful “Milwaukee,” which recounts a stroll through that fine burg that includes a contemplation of its statue in tribute to Arthur Fonzarelli paired with a chorus about “a nucleus burning inside of itself.” (Don’t ask me; I don’t get it, either.) But tunes like “Volunteers of America,” “You Can’t Help Me Now,” and “The Prisoner” are pretty darn swell—even if they fall short of Mann’s last, brilliant solo album Charmer (2012), and even if they aren’t quite what we’d hoped they’d be.
Aimee Mann and Ted Leo, The Both (SuperEgo Records)
Rating on the 4-star scale: 3 stars.