Ted Leo is the most underated American rock artist around. Period. That’s not opinion. That scientific fact based on observation and analysis of his output. With his revolving backing band, The Pharmacists, he has put out some of the best albums of the past decade.
I first heard of Ted Leo when his uncle told me to check out his music. I did it as a favor to a friend (and to show support for a fellow New Jerseyan), not aware that I would be adding to my all time favorite artist roster. That was about five years ago. Since then, rarely a week goes by without a Ted Leo song playing on my mp3 player or a ride home, belting out “Dial Up”.
Leo’s output ranges from the sweeping arrangements of his 2001 debut Tyranny of Distance, to the stripped down, slickly-produced 2004 Shake the Sheets. His work blends his love of old ska, punk, and reggae, with deftly crafted guitar parts. His sweeping chords meld with ferocious licks that come out of nowhere but don’t overstay their welcome.
Leo took some knocks with 2007’s Living With the Living. It’s admittedly an uneven mix of material. But for every clunker (“Bomb.Repeat.Bomb”), there were some real highlights, including one of my favorite Ted songs, “La Costa Brava”.
The latest Ted Leo & The Pharmacists record, The Brutalist Bricks, reigns in the experimentation, going for the stripped down, pure power-pop-punk route. That lack of veering off the track could be seen as a detriment, but, as per usual, most of the record grabs hold tightly with well- laid out arrangements, memorable hooks, and perhaps the tightest incarnation of The Pharmacists yet.
As for the sings on Bricks, there are some clear standouts. The punk fury is unleashed on the whirlwind track “Where Was My Brain?” At only 2:18, it’s compact and powerful, but with a simple, catchy chorus that even seasoned pure popsters wish they could write. Leo drops his voice down for the sinewy funk of “One Polaroid a Day”, while a requisite bass/drum breakdown buoys the melodic “Bartomelo and the Buzzing of Bees.” And “Bottled Up in Cork” brings the house down with sing-along refrain that could be a jukebox fave for trendy old-man bars across the country.
“Gimme the Wire” lightens up the latter half of the record with a classic Ted Leo verse. His spry vocals undercut guitar riffs that are familiar but still catchy. It’s a feel-good sunny-day record, something that Ted Leo has not done much of over the course of his last few records, owing to his political leanings and outspoken lyrical output regarding the previous administration.
For all the focus Ted Leo gets, I do want to give props to the longtime Pharmacists drummer Chris Wilson. With a minimal kit, Wilson churns out some excellent drum patterns, throwing in some dropped beats and succinct fills. He is one of the most accomplished drummers around.
There are a couple, not-so-great tunes. “Woke Up Near Chelsea” strains Ted’s voice and the lack of a good hook, keeps out of the top shelf here. And the acoustic “Tuberculoids Arrive in Hop”, has Leo channeling his inner Fleet Foxes. It’s not bad, just not memorable.
That being said, two slight missteps out of 13 tracks makes for another exceptional record by the indie stalwarts (now on Matador Records). Ted Leo & The Pharmacists are just hitting their stride, and with increasing media attention, hopefully will get their justified recognition as one of the best American rock bands around.
And the great thing is you’ll never have to worry about Ted Leo selling out.