[15 April 2014]
Before I get to the debut from Aimee Mann and Ted Leo’s new band, I should explain Milwaukeeans’ fraught relationship with TV sitcoms. Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley remain the Cream City’s most indelible pop culture touchstones for the American public, but there’s far from unanimous local love for Garry Marshall’s favorite sons and daughters. And why should there be? These are Hollywood relics of four decades ago (six if you go by era depicted), and lazy touring acts still can’t resist making boring Ralph Malph references. Opinion is certainly split on a particular bronze statue that’s alternately blighted and delighted the Milwaukee Riverwalk since 2008. So, as an ex-Milwaukeean of many years, my reaction to the Both’s debut single, “Milwaukee”, which name drops the infamous Bronze Fonz should theoretically be complicated and critical, aloof and maybe even a little snotty. But it’s absolutely none of these things, because “Milwaukee” and The Both are endearing triumphs, suffused with the joyous positivity of Leo’s work and the warm humanity of Mann’s without sacrificing the self-doubt and complications that run through both.
Mann and Leo make for an unexpected, but not entirely unintuitive, pairing on paper. In her solo work, Mann coats her explorations of loneliness and the harms people inflict on each other in honeyed pop. She lingers on cutting phrases from conversations and internal monologues, finessing them into earworms that invite commiseration, not wallowing. Leo’s lyrical terrain is just as internal and interpersonal as Mann’s, but where she refines, he elaborates and analyzes. He flits from thought to thought, stacking allusions over anxieties, reaching toward epiphanies only sometimes grasped. His frequent political subjects, work ethic, and tendency to bloody himself onstage have earned him any punk qualifiers you want to attach, but he channels them through an enviably huge record collection. Despite their differences in intensity and lyrical focus, though, these are two of pop’s most humane artists, as interested in what heals us as what plagues us. Their songs aren’t just music, but close confidantes who will listen to your problems, tell you theirs, and occasionally tell you to wise up, to pull on your boots and march, or, as they sing here, “come on back from the ledge for a spell”.”
Still, you just don’t expect artists with decades of distinct, well-developed styles to collaborate as well as Leo and Mann do. For Leo, this means cutting back on chord changes and hyperactive tempos, as well as stripping the political from the personal a tad more than usual. He’s typically not one for straight-up character dramas along the lines of the dysfunctional relationship in “Pay for It” or the ode to isolation “You Can’t Help Me Now”, but this stuff is Mann’s bread and butter, and he rises to her level admirably. Meanwhile, Mann sounds so at home with the uptempo tunes and rock guitar textures that it’s a wonder she hasn’t done it more often. She also indulges Leo his affinity for casually tossed-off ripping guitar solos and a few overt (if understated) political references. She gamely sings about marchers on Monsanto in “Hummingbird” and bops and harmonizes like a natural on “Milwaukee”, the aforementioned beaming ray of Thin Lizzy shuffle-pop. Speaking of Thin Lizzy, an influence that’s informed some of Leo’s best material, the Both’s cover of “Honesty Is No Excuse”, a hopeful album cut from the Dublin band’s ‘71 debut, blends seamlessly with their originals.
This just adds to the revelation that, as well as Mann and Leo collaborate on the songwriting front, they’re even more potent as duet partners. They adopt such similar phrasings in their deliveries that, as the songs rattle around in your brain (as they do), you lose track of who sang which verse. And while it’s a predictable device for virtually every chorus to inflate into full harmonizing, it’s a potent one that turns “The Prisoner” from a pretty good album track into a highlight. It’s tempting to play spot the primary artist on The Both, with “Milwaukee”, “Volunteers of America”, and “Bedtime Stories” the Leo-leaning songs and “You Can’t Help Me Now”, “No Sir”, and “The Inevitable Shove” the obvious Mann tunes, but this understates the synergy of the project. The Both sounds so well-constructed that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that “Volunteers”, which would sound musically at home on Leo’s last album, began as Mann’s attempt to meet her bandmate halfway.
The middle-ground approach does lead to some minor compromises. For instance, with Leo’s rapidfire sociopolitics toned down and Mann’s strengths less suited to the topical than the emotional, the respective messages in “Hummingbird” and “Volunteers of America” are muted into ambiguity. Is the former reserving some of the criticism aimed at Monsanto and the government for those who protest in futility; is the latter a sincere tribute to the faith-based charity or partially ironic? From a musical standpoint, it’s also easy to wonder how “The Inevitable Shove” might have sounded had Mann and Leo gone with a more Pharmacists-esque take.
Nonetheless, The Both charms like few collaborations of its ilk, a side project that transcends dabbling and brings out the best in Leo and Mann. In their recounting of how the partnership began in “Milwaukee” (near that damn Fonzie statue), the Both report the inspiration for it as “a nucleus burning inside of a cell”. The warmth carries through the entire album.