Filed under: Issue 21 | Tags: Brutalist Bricks, Hearts of Oak, Living With the Living, Shake the Sheets, Ted Leo, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, The Tyranny of Distance
Part of Issue 20 coverage!
Throughout his decade of music-making, it’s obvious that Ted Leo puts one ideal above all others when creating music: standing behind what he believes in. Think of Ted Leo as a very hardheaded doctor and his band, the Pharmacists as, well, pharmacists. Masters of their craft, their politically charged music is the cure they deliver for the world in peril.
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ lyrical poetry is so focused that there is typically little need for definite choruses or consistent use of a tuner. The band’s albums are centered around a unique take on song form. Overall, they lack a unified sound, but as artists they aren’t afraid to take a chance on new melodies or use Leo’s voice in unconventional ways.
The Tyranny of Distance 2001
This album put Ted Leo and the Pharmacists on the map in 2001. Their eclectic mix of everything from riff-driven punk rock in “My Vein Ilin” and Celtic undertones in, “Parallel or Together,” gained Leo a following of rock, indie and folk fans alike. The band combined their influences into cohesive songs, unique in structure and repetitious in harmony. While Leo’s vocal pitch varies from song to song, his emotional timbre remains constant, especially in “Biomusicology” which borrows lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Leo and the Pharmacists also manage to intertwine mythical lyrics and folk rock sounds into several songs, including the McCartney-esque “The Gold Finch and the Red Oak Tree.”
Hearts of Oak 2003
It is evident from this album that every lyric and song title has meaning behind it for the band. The second song on the album, “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone,” is politically-centered and extremely memorable “First to Finish, Last to Start,” refreshingly blends soulful guitar solos and emotional lyrics. The lyrics themselves are thought-provoking and leave you thinking about the song when its finished. Again, Leo’s album is all over the place with songs that include everything from country intros, rock and blues backbeats. For the average band an album with ever-changing qualities does not come together easily, but Leo finds a way to make it work.
Shake the Sheets 2004
Judging from Shake the Sheets’ clear and smoothly flowing opening track “Me and Mia,” Ted Leo and Co. clearly put more time into this album’s production. Despite the familiarity of the songwriting, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists use traditional rock chord progressions innovatively, bordering more on danceable power pop. “Counting Down the Hours” has melancholy, minor qualities at the beginning, which speed up after the first minute into electric, rock sounds played out on Leo’s Gibson ES. This is the best example the band’s ability to combine different musical genres into one unified song. Overall, the songs in this album most closely yield to the band’s punk rock influences, to great effect.
Living With the Living 2007
Characterized by pulsating beats and leftist opinions, Living with the Living is Leo’s most political set of songs. Reggae and folk music are rooted in politics and the band channels these sounds on Living with the Living. Leo references terrorism, tackles the events of the latter days of the Bush administration and wrote an album that consciously addressed his problems with it. With song titles like “Army Bound,” “Bomb. Repeat. Bomb.” and “Fourth World War,” the Pharmacists preach about timely issues with their passionate lyrics and melodic hooks. But despite the tumultuous times, the overriding theme is best heard in “La Costa Brava,” an endorsement of spontaneous mental-health trips to the Spanish coast.
Brutalist Bricks 2010
Ted Leo’s newest album debuted in March. The band’s previous albums varied in genre, but this album relies on classic and punk-rock characteristics throughout the majority of the songs. Leo doesn’t always take over-the-top guitar solos, but, “In Mourning in America,” is a great example of how he is able to use the right notes in the right places. “Tuberculosis Arrive in Hop,” placed towards the end of the record, is the only time over the course of the album that Leo moves into more somber territory. The extremely heartfelt and almost too personal “Bottled in Cork,” speaks to individual troubles by making references to his sister’s new child and falling in love with a bartender.