3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Aimee Mann has had a great run as a singer-songwriter with a literary bent and melancholy streak. Ted Leo beams in from a time when electric guitars underpinned feisty songs that told hard truths.
Maybe they're not the first names that come to mind when one thinks of natural songwriting pairings, but Mann and Leo make a good team on their excellent, self-titled debut album as The Both. The duo began working together in 2013, and "The Both" (SuperEgo Records) sounds like a genuine collaboration rather than an exercise in swapping each other's leftovers.
What unites both artists is their appreciation for songs: well-constructed melodies that create an emotional foundation even before a single word is sung. They share vocals, often trading lines or verses and reveling in wordless harmonies that become yet another hook in an album full of them. The songs aren't exactly brimming with lighthearted vibes, as to be expected. If anything, a knowing sense of mortality underlies many of the sentiments: Time is slipping away from us, so how are we using what's left?
But it's anything but depressing. Over a bouncy piano and hand claps, Mann and Leo bring almost a cheery resignation (if that's possible) to some devastating lines: "No, you can't blame the ones that you love, but you're still gonna blame the ones that you love, so now I'm stealing myself for the inevitable shove."
"Hummingbird" could be a Renaissance fairy tale, with its singsong vocal line and lovely counterpoint strings, even as it sounds a dire warning. On "The Prisoner," Leo's skeletal solo is as menacing and barren as the apocalyptic scene the lyrics describe. When Leo's voice emerges from behind a booming bass line on "No Sir" and then is joined out of the shadows by Mann's harmony, it's chilling and beautiful all at once.
And that cuts to the heart of why "The Both" connects. It isn't just a collection of well-constructed tunes. It's a unified album, in which sound is every bit as crucial as craft. Despite the formidable solo careers involved, The Both improbably sounds like the work of a band.
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