A fanboy's guide for the Ted Leo newbie

    Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. Photo by blythe_d on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.

    Ted Leo and his band of Pharmacists are coming to NU for Dillo Day, which is good because although his records are fun to listen to, they’re nothing compared to his live act where he crackles like a live wire, jumping across the stage like a modern-day Joe Strummer. He’s the closest thing indie rock has to a punk icon (hipsters would like to forget the Ramones ever existed). But punk rock is only one of a handful of original American music forms; Ted Leo stands out by spiking power pop with punk energy and DIY spirit. His songs are filled with falsetto yelps and harmonizing, and his voice is high-pitched but as nasal as so many other indie rock frontmen.

    When Leo takes that Lakefill stage and jerks his head back so hard that he leaves a trail of sweat swinging through the air, you’ll thank Mayfest for bringing him because he both rocks and stands for shit. But in case you wanna know some of his lyrics so you can belt them out with the rest of the crowd, here’s some stuff he’s done.

    The Tyranny of Distance (2001)

    This is the album that started it all. It doesn’t have the same energy as the later albums, moving at a slower pace, with Leo playing around in longer songs Neil Young-style. Though he wouldn’t write songs as long as the eight-minute “Stove By a Whale” again for seven years, the rest are not tightly focused — they sound like Leo and his band just playing around in the studio until they found something that sounded good. But the lack of vision doesn’t make this album any less good, just less coherent. The near-solo “Timorous Me” is held by some as his finest song to date, a modern update of Elvis Costello’s “Alison,” Leo twisting his voice in every direction as he narrates a love song to a girl named, oddly enough, Timory. This album has great reviews, and some critics think it’s his best. Personally, I think he would go on to do better. It’s like how some people think the first Beatles album is the best. It’s not. It just got them started, and for that, we listen to it. Albums like these are entry-level positions at a Fortune 500 company.

    Key tracks:Timorous Me, Dial Up, St. John the Divine

    Hearts of Oak (2003)

    Hey, you remember ska? Yeah, I know you haven’t listened to it since sophomore year of high school, but Ted Leo offers the best homage to ska that’s ever been put down in “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” by writing a song that isn’t ska at all. It’s official: Ska could have given up as an idea or art form in 2003, and no one would have cared because Leo sings about it all here — about how people turn to ska when the world just doesn’t make sense (i.e. high school) and how it’s just more fun to dance everything away. Anyone trying to convince anyone that ska didn’t suck could just play this song, and the doubter might even be half-convinced. But then they’d listen to another shitty Five Iron Frenzy song and forget they even tried.

    Key Tracks:Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?, The High Party

    Shake the Sheets (2004)

    Forget the songs for a moment — look at that cover art! It’s so bright! So vivid! So artistic! This album was all the rage in my junior year of high school and I didn’t even know why, except that there were some pretty impressive primary colors going on and Ted Leo might be a communist with the way he was using streamlined imagery and all of that crap. It’s a cover that makes you buy an album and I was so intrigued that I went out and borrowed it from one of my friends. Man, did those jams knock my socks off, with the crunchy chords and riffs, no guitar solos, and dense wordplay — nothing boring, just melodic singing that you could barely understand until you looked up the lyrics on the Internet. And even then, what the hell is he singing about? “Me and Mia,” which is probably the best song here, is energetic and full of fist-pounding lyrics in the midst of instrumental breakdowns, but it’s about eating disorders or something — you’re going to want to check this one out, because he’s going to play it, maybe as the third or fourth song like he’s done the last few times I’ve seen him. But really, every song here is a winner or at least listenable, whether it’s the bouncy folk-punk of “Counting Down the Hours” or the locale-dropping “Walking to Do” (he will change a lyric at the end of the song to include Northwestern or Evanston or Chicago as a place he’s walking to, I guarantee it). If I thought of a record I’d remember from 2004, a record that captured where I was at that point, this would be it.

    Key Tracks: Me and Mia, Counting Down the Hours, Criminal Piece

    Living with the Living (2007)

    This album wasn’t received as well as the others, which is strange because it’s another distinctively Ted Leo album. Not to say all of his albums blend together like Death Cab for Cutie’s, but he hasn’t made any major changes in sound during his career, he’s just continued to write the same kind of songs he always has. So it’s still catchy, it’s still political, it’s still up-tempo, but it’s nothing you hadn’t heard before, which means it’s still a fine record. I’m also a little biased because some of the duller songs here (“The Unwanted Things,” “Colleen,” “Bomb. Repeat. Bomb.”) are transformed in concert when Leo imbues each song with energy, making them interesting by sheer will. But then there’s “La Costa Brava,” a six-minute coastal jaunt about taking a vacation. It’s like the sound of a speedboat cruising on a hot summer day, the kind of song you put on in the middle of August and just sit back to relax to, which is why I’m hoping he busts it out at Dillo Day. Also, “The Sons of Cain” might be the most energetic song he’s ever done, with a stomping kicker of a drum beat that will get the Dillo Day crowd pumped despite their alcohol-fueled stupor.

    Key Tracks:La Costa Brava, The Sons of Cain, Army Bound

    Leo did a cover of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” combined with “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It was down totally stripped with an acoustic guitar, but not in that annoying indie-rock way where turning a popular song into a haunting ballad is supposed to be interesting (it happened with “Crazy,” it happened with “Umbrella”). Leo has the perfect falsetto for the song and the right attitude: He’s not being ironic, he just thinks it’s a great song. Stuff like this is why I love Ted Leo even if I don’t know all of his music by heart — because he gives a damn and is so unpretentiously serious about it that I can’t help but admire him. I don’t try to make heroes out of my favorite musicians, but it’s easy to look up to Leo not just because of his music, but because of his ideals. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go try to memorize the lyrics to “Me and Mia” — even though I can barely make out what he’s saying.


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