Some albums are really great for a certain activity, which I made abundantly clear when I reviewed the new Kings Of Leon and said it was best for night driving. Ted Leo's new platter is great for mowing an overgrown lawn on a hot day. I know this because I'm sitting here, drenched in sweat, pollen clogging my throat, grass stains all over my jeans, and I still feel great. Thanks to Ted Leo. I think by being great for cutting the grass, and as cutting the grass is a pretty much experienceless, mundane activity, you could claim the album is good for anything, like say painting, or maybe throwing a molotov cocktail.
In a lot of ways, this new album feels like Ted's most personal, not because the subject matter is vastly different than previous albums, but because the recording and production is closest to the live sound of the band. It feels more like the front row than your couch, bed, or driver's seat. The Pharmacists road tested the material throughout the summer of 2006, before their fall recording sessions, so the kinks were worked out before hitting record. Highlights of the album that rank with Leo's best, tracks like "Army Bound", "Some Beginner's Mind", "La Costa Brava", and "C.I.A." all sound just like they did on stage when I saw the band at their near-annual appearance at the South Street Seaport in NYC last August. They played the bulk of this album that night, and I noticed that Ted & the boys have solidified a consistent sound while managing to vary their songwriting, and that shows on the album. Take the start of what would be Side 2 on vinyl: "Annunciation Day" blasts off like a Minutemen song-fragment before crashing into the Queen bombast of "Born Of Christmas Day". That's followed by the classic Reggae bounce of "The Unwanted Things", 7 minutes of "The Lost Brigade" which starts as punk/funk before unleashing a "Layla" coda, into the Cheap Trick-ish arena rock of "The World Stops Turning". Furthermore, the album would be even broader if the tracks from the Mo' Living EP were included; the band glides from the classic hardcore of "Living With The Living" to the 60's soul of "Already Too Late?" to a hurricane-strength take on Chumbawamba's
"Rappaport's Testament: I Never Gave Up" which recalls The Who at their Live At Leeds peak.
In this new varied approach, Ted wraps some of his usual political and social commentary, alternately weary and fiery. Leo has become sort of like the indie rock version of Michael Moore, but with one huge difference: Leo is eminently likable. I, or anyone else who has ever met the man, can tell you that he's so personable that you can go from thanking him for a great show to talking about Darfur to asking how his folks are. Where Moore beats his point home with sleight of hand editting, Leo simply says what's wrong in a way that you receive the message and want to get up, stand up. This has held true over the past three albums, but for the first time since his solo career really got rolling with 2001's Tyranny Of Distance, he finally boils over with frustration. On "Bomb. Repeat. Bomb", he spews lyrics like a machine gun, while on the Lennon-esque "The Toro And The Toreador", he plainly notes that "Everyone wants body counts, and I just want to cry." When taken with the varied surrounding tunes though, it doesn't seem like overkill. It's here that we can return to the belief that Leo isn't Moore with a guitar, but the man to carry on Joe Strummer's torch. Strummer could sings the praises of Motown or Dub as much as he could bleat over misguided politicians, and Leo follows this approach to the letter. Life is about more than The Man and The Powers That Be. It's about a girl named "Colleen" and having "A Bottle Of Buckie", and mowing the lawn. Ted Leo knows this. While The Pharmacists palette may not have as many colors as The Clash's yet, Living With The Living could easily be remembered as their London Calling.
MUSIC: Ted Leo & The Pharmacists' Living With The Living/Mo' Living EP