AIMEE MANN: THE BOTH (w. Ted Leo) (2014)
1) The Gambler; 2) Milwaukee; 3) No Sir; 4) Volunteers Of America; 5) Pay For It; 6) You Can't Help Me Now; 7) The Prisoner; 8) Hummingbird; 9) Honesty Is No Excuse; 10) Bedtime Stories; 11) The Inevitable Shove.
Although, technically, this is not at all an «Aimee Mann» album, exactly one half of it does belong to Aimee Mann, and the Aimee Mann spirit is so pervasive throughout that the record begs being reviewed in this section — especially because it is not highly likely that I will ever get around to writing about its second creative force, the indie rocker Ted Leo, formerly of Citizens Arrest, Chisel, The Sin-Eaters, The Spinanes, The Pharmacists, and The Whatchamacallit (a.k.a. «Gee, I've Been In So Many Bands Now, I Couldn't Remember Their Fucking Names, What Am I, Fucking Bob Dylan Or Something»)?
Anyway, «The Both» is indeed a 50-50 collaborative project between Aimee and Mr. Leo, who had begun with a joint concert tour in 2012, and eventually ended up in the recording studio with each other, pooling their respective talents to generate forty minutes of previously non-existent musical vibes. And I do mean pooling: both artists worked together on every bit of the material, rather than just doing it Abbey Road-style, right down to singing together on each song (in complete unison or, more frequently, in lead / backup mode). And it shows: while I am not too familiar with Ted Leo's usual style, there is definitely an Aimee Mann musical presence inside each of the tracks. Even in the unexpected choice of ʽHonesty Is No Excuseʼ, an obscure track from Thin Lizzy's self-titled debut of 1971, as the album's only cover version.
Ted Leo's main role, as it seems, is in making The Both Aimee's «rockiest» album since God knows when — maybe since the days of her early solo albums, before Magnolia forever locked her in a state of introspective maturity. The arrangements are classic «indie rock» — crunchy, distorted, but not particularly heavy electric guitars playing time-honored folk-rock chord sequences, with practically nothing standing between them, the vocals, and the rhythm section. The result is a little monotonous, but those fans of Aimee who'd spent the last fifteen years complaining about her losing power might think of it as one big ball of compensation for all those years.
The songs, unfortunately, are far from spectacularly written or innovative. Emotionally, all is drenched in Aimee's usual intellectual-melancholic juices, which Leo is only too happy to share — whenever he joins her in a duet or a slice of harmony, it's like two old lovers grumbling about whether their past was any good and whether they still have a future to live out. If anything, The Both is really close in spirit to The Forgotten Arm, which, if you remember, told the story of two unhappy people, but was sung only by one of them — now that mistake has been corrected, and Leo is the out-of-luck boxer, and Aimee is his girlfriend. Something like ʽNo Sirʼ even borrows some of the chords and much of the atmosphere from ʽKing Of The Jailhouseʼ, although the final result is much more timid and less openly cathartic. And a song title like ʽYou Can't Help Me Nowʼ — well, remember ʽI Can't Help You Anymoreʼ? Quiet desperation is no longer just the English way. The bitch has spread over to the States, and is catching quickly.
Only one moment stands out for me: ʽHummingbirdʼ, a song that mostly sticks true to its title, leisurely humming its one-phrase way through the time passages, culminates in an ear-splitting psychedelic chord right after the final refrain ("I got a message from the hummingbird...") that suddenly, for a brief moment, pushes the song into breathtaking «astral» mode. But then it ends — instead of exploring that move further, following the hummingbird to the stars, they just sort of let it out of their hands, gone in a flash: a great moody idea cut too short for comfort.
Other than that, it's just a decent enough album for fans of Aimee (no idea how enjoyable it would be for fans of the other guy). We could simply admit that she is old and spent, but Charmer had just shown that this was far from the case. More likely, it is simply that these two people are not a particularly good match for each other, and each of them should probably do his/her own schtick, without trying to work out some sort of compromised average. In my case, I'd like to hear more Aimee and less Leo (who sounds absolutely colorless as a singer to me, though I'm sure he is a good pal and a sentient human being, if the two took up together so well); others might wish for the opposite. I'd also like to have elegant melodic resolutions instead of choruses that simply run themselves into the ground to make way for memorability (ʽInevitable Shoveʼ, ʽPay For Itʼ, etc.). I do give the album a weak thumbs up, since it is honest and it was fun to hear Aimee pick up the basic dirty rock'n'roll guitar after such a long break. But it certainly isn't even close to «essential Aimee Mann» — way too lazy songwriting.
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