Ted Leo and the Pharmacists

The Brutalist Bricks

Rating: 4.5/5.0

Label: Matador Records

It’s easy to admire Ted Leo because it’s never been his era. There’s always talk of how he carries on the tradition of anarcho-punk originators and mod rock revivalists. Others drop flattering comparisons to ’80s “personal is political” songwriters in the vein of Elvis Costello and Billy Bragg. That being said, I don’t admire him or laud his fidelity to the past- that kind of praise being cheap and a little backhanded. I just enjoy the hell out of his songs. Leo can write the soundtrack to the best times you’ll ever have and I look forward to my first spring with The Brutalist Bricks.

Leo’s low-key personality and kinetic passion have never failed him in the studio. Though, more than any previous release, this one closely resembles the ebb and flow of his explosive live show. It’s a loud jackhammer of a record that’s urgent in resolve but generous with its message. Leo balances the best parts of an intimate polemic and a diverse high-speed punk record using the foresight of his considerable experience. Throughout the album, testaments temper guitar solos and vice versa, keeping energy levels in balance. With the exception of the infectious travelogue “Bottled in Cork” there isn’t an overabundance of catchy melodies and choruses- certainly not as many as could be found in the sugary pop punk of the Pharmacists’ past. Instead, this collection is the most exhaustive and distinct display of Leo’s very particular style and ability.

From the get-go, “The Mighty Sparrow” kicks the front door off of its hinges and, once a cool breeze blows in, we’re off to the races. Immediately following that opening, “Mourning in America” spins a hyperactive yarn about America speeding towards a new menace that’s hard to name. Most of Leo’s songwriting over the years has stemmed from this sort of outlook; that of a man trying to solve a puzzle while hanging upside down, itching to make sense of anything in a world that embraces its own mad contradictions. In the ’00s, those sentiments helped salve some shared wounds among angry lefties. In 2010, he’s still at it with the hardbound first verse of the resolute “Woke up Near Chelsea:” “Well we’ve all got a job to do, and we all hate God.”

However, there isn’t as much refined wordplay as there was on 2004’s heart-pounding election year time capsule Shake the Sheets or it’s follow-up Living With the Living, which was composed of nothing but lyrically engaging singles. Today, his wiry shouts and honeysuckle high notes deliver the news with a frightfully blunt outlook. The punishing torture of “Gimme the Wire” sucked me in with its thrillingly powerful guitar hooks. But what made it linger on the top of my iTunes count was the sly, slipped-in insight. The same goes for my favorite song of the bunch, “Even Heroes Have to Die,” an easy-going anthem that strategically stops to deliver ominous warnings.

Often Leo likes to raid the music he loves, but the worst that could be said is that he does it exceedingly well while injecting his own personality to tried and true formulas. “Where Was My Brain?” and “The Stick” might drip with Black Flag’s gooey self-loathing, but how could anyone possibly toss off mean remarks to someone who takes such joy in following his forebears? Likewise, the dance rock palatability of “One Polaroid a Day” has deep roots but carries its beat too infectiously for me to care what was borrowed.

A question from “Bartolomeo and the Buzzing of Bees” that will stick especially close to me in the warm sunshine is “Do you feel smiled on by your past and present?“. It’s a meaningful line from Leo after a lifetime of climbing every last rung of the independent music ladder, even after adding a couple for himself to overcome. In the 2003 documentary portrait Dirty Old Town there was a thoughtful tone in his voice as he acknowledged how few artists had succeeded for very long by charting a truly self-reliant path. Gradually, he was able burst out from a second-tier journeymen status but the difficulties still piled up. This, his band’s debut on Matador, comes after bouncing from one label crisis (Lookout! Records being buried in legal disputes) to the next (Touch and Go closing up shop). For The Brutalist Bricks to be such a determined and idealistic collection after too many years on or near the back burner, should shame cynics across the musical divide. This may not be his era, but I, for one, am proud to live in the Ted Leo epoch.

by Neal Fersko
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