Songwriters United
Wilson, Mann, Leo and Some Amazing Tunes

I know several people who choose which movies to see based on who stars in them.

Apologies if you’re one of those people, but I’ve always found that an odd way to do things. The star of the film has very little to do with the content of that film – they show up, they say their lines, and if you’re lucky, they infuse those lines with power and wit. But that’s it. Actors say the lines they’re given, and it’s the writers and directors who give them those lines. Although I liked Denzel Washington in Philadelphia and Malcolm X (and in most everything, to be honest), I’m not surprised when a movie like John Q. sucks, despite the fact that he’s in it.

So I follow writers and directors, and I’ll see films by my favorites no matter who is in them. I just (finally) caught Frances Ha, the latest film by Noah Baumbach – he’s owned a piece of my heart ever since I saw Kicking and Screaming, his phenomenal debut film, during my listless first years after college. Baumbach has grown up considerably since then (although K&S is still one of my very favorite movies), and Frances Ha is a wonderful slice of life. You can ask me who’s in it if you like, but when I tell you it’s Greta Gerwig and a bunch of people no one’s ever heard of, I expect a quizzical look. I’m in for Baumbach.

I take the same approach to music. I know a lot of people who follow singers, and that’s fine. But not me. The voice is actually the last thing I respond to – I’m into it for the songwriters and record-makers. I’m looking for well-written, well-made songs, and the best way I’ve found to do that is to follow the people who write and create the best songs. This sounds elementary, but I’m surprised by how many people don’t pay attention to the people who wrote their favorite songs. I seek that information out. Write a few great songs, and I’ll buy your album. Write a bunch, and I’ll be your fan for life.

Dan Wilson has written a ton of great songs. He’s also a prime example of what I’m talking about, since he’s responsible for some enormous hits over the past decade, but very few people know who he is. If you’re aware of Wilson at all, it’s probably because you were a fan of Semisonic, his marvelous mid-‘90s pop band. Once they dissolved, Wilson became a behind-the-scenes songwriter for the stars – he’s written or co-written for Adele, Mike Doughty, the Dixie Chicks, Sean and Sara Watkins, John Legend, Rachael Yamagata, Taylor Swift and Pink, to name a few, and his contributions are routinely among the best on those projects. (He co-wrote “Someone Like You” for Adele, and that’s my pick for best song on that record.)

It’s always a joy when Wilson sings his own material, though, especially considering how rarely it happens. Wilson’s second solo album is called Love Without Fear, and if you want a tutorial on how to write a quality pop song, you could do a lot worse. Wilson has mastered the art of writing tunes that feel like old friends the first time you spin them. These songs have a warm and comfortable nature that slyly hides how well constructed they are, how perfectly arranged. Though I can imagine a host of singers taking on these lovely little numbers, I’m always glad to hear the ones Wilson saves for himself.

This time, he’s woven a tale of heartbreak and hope. Many of these songs concern the breakup of a relationship, the slow disintegration of love and the pain of longing. The jaunty title track is first, setting down what Wilson’s looking for – someone to take his hand, walk with him, give him time and love without fear. He then details just how short the object of his affection has fallen, in language that makes it clear that the affection is still there, but something else has died. “A Song Can Be About Anything” is a rave-up that rises above its jokey title – the songs he wants to write, clearly, are about “how you used to love me but you don’t even know me anymore.”

“However Long” is a melancholy wonder, Brad Gordon’s horns providing subtle accent behind Wilson’s promise to wait as long as it takes for someone. “When It Pleases You” is the one moment of anger here: “You love me when it pleases you, you want me when it’s easy to do, you hold me when you don’t want anybody else to…” The song itself is gentle, with pretty horns that belie the bite in the lyrics. “Too Much” is something of an old-time country number, complete with slide guitar from Blake Mills, on which Wilson admits to giving more than he should. And the absolutely delightful “We Belong Together” shimmies on a plunking piano line and more great horns, finds him stating his case.

The album’s most affecting track is its saddest. “Disappearing” is an acoustic lament for a dying relationship, Wilson and Sara Bareilles harmonizing beautifully on the chorus: “Some nights I feel like I’m watching your red tail lights disappearing…” For personal reasons, I’m responding very well to songs like this at the moment, and this is one of Wilson’s best. It’s simple, but exactly what it should be. In fact, the same can be said for most of Love Without Fear. Wilson only gets big a couple of times, most notably on the epic closer “Even the Stars Are Sleeping,” but for the most part, this is a little album of tiny, perfect songs.

As you might expect from a songwriter in as much demand as Wilson is, Love Without Fear is a festival of guest stars. In addition to Mills and Bareilles and Gordon, it includes contributions from Sean and Sara Watkins (of Nickel Creek), Natalie Maines (of the Dixie Chicks), pedal steel master Greg Leisz and drummer Joey Waronker. But everyone here is in service to the songs, even Wilson himself. This is an album that is about how wonderful its songs are, and man, they are indeed wonderful. Every year I get the chance to hear at least a few Dan Wilson songs, molded into shape by others, but a Dan Wilson album is a rare pleasure, and I’m treasuring this one.

Wilson is something of an anomaly – most of my favorite songwriters sing their own tunes all the time. Near the top of that list is Aimee Mann, who graduated from Til Tuesday in the early ‘90s and spent the intervening 20 years or so writing more great tunes than just about anyone from that era. Mann is living proof that perfection can be its own worst enemy – she constructs pop songs so expertly that lately she’s been struggling to shake things up, exploring synthesizers and other production touches to add new flavors. Those who say she’s made the same album half a dozen times aren’t exactly wrong, though they are taking the brilliance of her writing for granted.

Mann’s latest attempt to shake things up is a doozy, however. She’s teamed up with fellow pop-rock luminary Ted Leo, he of the Pharmacists, another guy who knows his way around a hook. They’ve called their collaboration The Both, and their self-titled album is everything you’d hope a team-up between these superheroes would be. I’ve read some surprised reactions to The Both, many pointing to Leo’s punk-rock roots and marveling at how well his style intertwines with Mann’s here. This ignores two important things – Mann has her own punk roots, having started her career with the band Young Snakes, and more importantly, both Mann and Leo have been all about the songs from the start.

What makes The Both so great is their alchemy. They’ve found a way to naturally combine the loud guitar-pop of Leo’s work with the tricky melodies and dark-hearted sweetness of Mann’s. The result sounds like both of them, and neither of them. This isn’t just a louder Mann or a smoother Leo. This is The Both, and you can hear the distinction clearly on the first few tracks. “Milwaukee” remains the best intro to this new unit, all snarling guitars and thrashing drums giving way to a delightful chorus, Mann’s voice entwined with Leo’s. Where you’d expect some tight structure from Mann, you get Leo exploding all over the song with a guitar solo. It’s a perfect chemical reaction.

Some of the songs bear Mann’s distinctive flavor, like the melancholy “No Sir,” and some sound more like Leo, such as the sunny tribute “Volunteers of America.” But even these are energized, pushed in new directions. My favorite here is “You Can’t Help Me Now,” a melodic masterpiece that would be the best song on either co-writer’s latest album. Mann and Leo trade off lead vocals here, as they do throughout the album, and they sound as though they’ve been singing together for a decade. Leo loosens Mann up – her records were starting to sound studied – and Mann brings a fresh melodicism to Leo.

Needless to say, this is the best work from either of them in some time. I haven’t even mentioned gems like “Hummingbird” and “The Prisoner,” or their cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Honesty is No Excuse.” The Both is a triumph, a meeting of songwriting minds that has struck gold. As much as I like Mann and Leo separately, I hope The Both isn’t a one-off. This is one collaboration that deserves a sequel, if not half a dozen of them.

One final note while we’re on the subject of writers and filmmakers. About 10 years ago, I got wind of a new project from genius director Richard Linklater. I’ve been a fan since Dazed and Confused, in the early ‘90s, and particularly of his fascination with a explorations of time. His best films are about that – the Before Sunrise trilogy catches up with the same characters in nine-year intervals, and plays out snapshots of their lives in real time, for instance. But this project, called Boyhood, would take that idea to its extreme.

Linklater cast a six-year-old boy named Ellar Coltrane to play the lead in his film, and planned to catch up with him once a year to film a new scene. There would be 12 scenes in all, and we would get to watch Coltrane’s character grow from six to 18 before our eyes. Nothing like this has ever been attempted, and I’ve kept track of the production, hoping that it would work out. Well, it has – Boyhood is playing festivals now, and the first trailer just hit. It looks amazing, and I can’t even tell you how excited I am to see this.

But not next week. Next week, I’ll review my friend Andrea Dawn’s new album, Doll. Here’s a taste to whet your appetite – the video for “All the Other Girls.” Check it out, and I’ll see you back here in seven or so. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow me on Facebook at, and Twitter at

See you in line Tuesday morning.