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Ted Leo and Aimee Mann Double Your Power-Pop Pleasure as ‘The Both’

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: April 08, 2014
Label: Superego

Power-pop gets no respect, and why should it? Those anachronistic harmonies consistently fail to achieve pop success, and few power-pop bands wouldn’t benefit from more power — just imagine if the db’s or Big Star had a powerhouse drummer like Bill Berry shoveling coal into their backbeat. The genre’s selling point is consistency, supposedly what separates tastemaker faves like the Shoes and New Pornographers from that old perception of mainstream pop as hit-or-miss singles junk.

Aimee Mann and Ted Leo have the consistency thing down. Both are pretty singular, well-respected artists with dozens of albums between them, who seem content to linger on the fringes of the artistic conversation without much interest in shaking it up. Leo’s a fantastic guitarist whose songwriting tends toward the distracted, and his voice is awful often on fan-favorite Hearts of Oak. Much better was 2004’s falsetto-deprived Shake the Sheets, which made a claim to E Street punk when the Gaslight Anthem and Titus Andronicus were just getting started. As for his cohort, my colleague Jason Gubbels chortles that the frogs falling from the sky in Magnolia were more plausible than a whole town singing an Aimee Mann song. This is what makes their collaboration as The Both so enjoyable: It’s a pleasant late-career surprise from an auteur who needed more power and a rocker who needed more pop.

Calling The Both the best thing either artist has ever done shouldn’t be as controversial as it sounds; if only those who think so could convince us they’ve had The Brutalist Bricks or I’m with Stupid in heavy rotation during the Kanye years. Leo’s grown into a palpable mid-range not dissimilar to Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth in his more flattering moments, and Mann’s low-register harmonies bow warmly against him like a buzzing cello. Leo donates one of his classic Thin Lizzy homage shuffles to “Milwaukee,” the first single with a gripping hook: “It’s a nucleus burning inside of a cell.” Finale “The Inevitable Shove” pairs a classic Spoon-style piano stomp with the New Pornographers’ genius chord changes to underscore its typical shrug: “You can’t blame the ones that you love/ But you’re still gonna blame the ones that you love.”

But what’s really impressive on The Both is how the constancy of all the juicy harmonies keeps the thing from ever receding to the background. Highlights include the waltzy beaut “No Sir,” the fuzz-bass-driven “Volunteers of America,” the instantaneous country “Pay for It” and the Green Day-tight “Bedtime Stories.” The tunes barely let up until the Mann-led “Hummingbird” and “Honesty Is No Excuse” more than halfway through, and even then the usual boring singer/songwriter-isms become a nice resting place from the otherwise inescapable hooks. By then, the avoidance of waste, ego and decisions that aren’t music-first leave only a nucleus that’s burning brighter than ever.