Whenever a musical collaboration gets announced, fingers should be crossed. Like your best friends announcing they’ve decided to date each other, there is a quiet, unspoken awareness this could well be a cacophonous disaster before it’s a resounding success. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. The Both, a project between Aimee Mann and Ted Leo, leans more toward “doesn’t.”
For the majority of songs on this record, it seems like Leo’s contribution to the sound largely consisted of saying, “You know what would be great, Aimee? If we played that with an electric guitar.” The best songs on here sound like typical Mann creations: baroque pop with intelligent lyrics sung at the kind of bar where no one’s had too much to drink—the main difference being that the guitar work is more fuzzy and distorted than acoustic and Downy soft. For that matter, the distortion isn’t even enough to set the disc apart from anything the two have recorded individually up to this point. It’s just another setting on their amplifiers, not an innovative addition to their sound.
Leo and Mann are both pretty established within their own catalogs, and perhaps this record’s key weakness is how little it does to renovate or even remodel anything either has built up to this point. It sounds more like a couple of old friends jamming at a house party at the insistent request of their compatriots than a well-crafted advancement of their musical ingenuity. No one’s looking to Aimee Mann or Ted Leo for much beyond their kindly and unique singer/songwriter niceties, but when one of the party has been nominated for an Oscar, you expect something more than this.
There’s nothing wrong with liking nice music, just like there’s nothing wrong with liking nice people. It would be remiss of a person not to. The problem enters in when that’s all you can say about a record or a potential friend or lover. And that’s exactly what this record is: nice. The Both’s self-titled release is the sound of a first date that wasn’t exactly a drag but won’t be leading to a second meet-up. It’s not a waste of time but it doesn’t have the jokey possibilities of a total catastrophe or the spark needed to keep you going on.
The best thing a record like this can do is redirect you to memories of other music that has meant the world to you. Luckily, that can easily mean a return to some of both Aimee Mann and Ted Leo’s excellent past releases. If any album points you back to the still-wonderful-15-years-later Magnolia soundtrack, it’s at least done something right.