I’m decked out in one of my many Ted Leo + Pharmacists t-shirts at the office today and felt like sharing my Ted Leo story with you on this chilly Tuesday morning.
In the early-ish 2000’s, Spin magazine was on a bit of a roll. I was actually finding new music I liked in magazines more regularly than on the radio or television. There was a lot of good stuff coming out then: The Arcade Fire, The New Pornographers, Metric, Ambulance, LTD., and so forth. One of the most consistently well-reviewed albums at the time was “Hearts of Oak” by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. I saw that they were coming to Austin for SxSW, so, without actually hearing any of the music first, I bought a copy.
I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, maybe something a little more twee, but “Hearts of Oak” absolutely rocked my world. It had all the bite of a great punk record with the hooks of Squeeze and the virtuoso guitar playing of…Ted Leo. It was, and remains, an absolutely great album.
Good luck getting that riff outta your head. If you don’t like that song, then you may as well stop reading.
So, after hearing and really digging the record, I was excited to the them play at SxSW. I got to see them play in a tent outside of Emo’s on 6th and Red River. The crowd was small but enthusiastic and the band absolutely killed it. They were raw, raucous, and very, very fun. Here’s a shot of them playing “Ballad of the Sin Eater.” That’s Ted on the other poor dude’s back.
The “other poor dude” is a guy from the audience helping with the chorus. Seriously good times, folks.
I saw the band several more times over the year, eagerly awaiting the next album. That one was “Shake the Sheets” and it is, to me, still the most meaningful Ted Leo record. It’s also the most “commercial” if you put any stock into such things, but I have trouble criticizing crisp production, top-notch songwriting, and the tight performance of a band that’s hitting its stride.
“Shake the Sheets” came out right before the 2004 election. That was a very weird time for a lot of us. It was becoming increasingly clear that this country was about to re-elect a president who had proven himself wholly unfit for the job. “Shake the Sheets” spoke to that feeling in me. It was a call to action rather than a sneering catalog of what sucks. That’s a really tough line to walk. How can you be meaningful without being preachy, and how can you protest without sounding whiny? This record is my answer to that question.
Oh, and did I mention it was commercial? This song is so unspeakably catchy that you’ll find yourself humming it and singing along with the chorus before you realize what it’s about:
And then the election went all kinds of wrong. I’m not really sure what happened next. I saw several shows where exciting new material was previewed but it would be three years before the next record came out. “Living With The Living” had a more raw sound than “Shake The Sheets”, employed more musical styles, and didn’t have the obvious singles that “Shake The Sheets” did. While I immediately loved the previous record, this one took me a little while longer.
It was worth it, though. “Living With The Living” had more punk moments, more introspection, and more to reward repeated listening than you would have thought on the initial listen. Check out the outrageous guitar playing on “Sons of Cain”:
On the best day of my life, I’ll never play guitar like that, let alone sing while I’m doing it. “Living With The Living” was an expansive record, but it didn’t seem to find an audience the way “Shake the Sheets” did. But man, they could play. They did a thunderous cover of Chumbawamba’s “Rappaport’s Last Testament” as a storm rolled in that still gives me chills to remember.
I’m not sure where to shoehorn bit in, but if there’s a worthwhile benefit going on somewhere, there’s a better than zero chance you’ll find Ted Leo performing there, with or without the Pharmacists, or else he’ll have donated some original music, or contributed in some other way. I got to see him (along with A.C Newman and Eugene Mirman and others) at the Bell House in Brooklyn doing a benefit for the hurricane victims in Haiti. I can assure you that Mr. Leo has not gotten rich off of his career and he stretches himself very thin, but he’s usually willing to get out there and do the work for the right reasons. Which is to say, not only do I dig the music, I have to admire the man, too.
The most recent record, “The Brutalist Bricks”, felt a little quieter, a little more personal and less message-y to me (if that makes any sense). There’s still plenty of rocking going on, but, to me, it felt more like Ted Leo writing about Ted Leo than about Big Issues.
“The Brutalist Bricks” arrived after TL+R/X moved to Matador records, which is where a lot of my favorite bands are or have recently been. From the outside, Matador feels like a big, silly family. Check out some of the names and faces that pop up in the video for “Bottled In Cork”: