Ted Leo + Pharmacists
Hearts of Oak
T.J. Simon's #5 album for 2003
First Appeared at The Music Box, May 2003, Volume 10, #5
Written by T.J. Simon
Ted Leo is a native of New Jersey who made a name in the NYC punk scene of the ’80s with the bands Citizens Arrest and Animal Crackers. He spent the lion’s share of the ’90s fronting the Washington, D.C. mod/punk band Chisel, followed by stints in Sin Eaters and The Spinanes. His most recent manifestation is as a solo artist with an ultra-talented backing band called The Pharmacists. On his latest release Hearts of Oak, Leo straddles the line between power pop and punk anchored by intricate musical compositions, intelligent lyrics, and his malleable singing voice.
Not many bands playing today sound like Ted Leo + Pharmacists, although The Mooney Suzuki and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds come close. On Hearts of Oak, Leo draws on influences from rock’s past: early Joe Jackson on The High Party, Thin Lizzie on Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone? and The Clash on the outstanding title track. Leo has no problem hitting the difficult high notes, and his vocals soar like an amped-up John Wesley Harding on I’m a Ghost and The Anointed One. The band is instrumentally flawless and includes the skin-shredding drumming of Chris Wilson and the urgent electric piano of Dorien Garry. Leo’s own virtuoso guitar work also accents the album’s finest moments.
Hearts of Oak is an album worth a listen with the lyric sheet in hand. And, while you’re at it, grab a dictionary, too. Leo has a love of language that, at times, can be a bit showy. Like a high school senior waltzing out of an SAT prep class, he tosses around words like apostasy, ossify, and flâneur in his body of songs as if they were part of his every day vernacular. And, you might as well dust off your World Atlas for a trip around the globe on The Ballad of the Sin Eater, which stops in Belfast, Ibiza, Damascus, and Kigali. In this musical travelogue, Leo is forced to carry the baggage of all of America’s sins as the chorus repeats, "You didn’t think they could hate you, now did you?"
Too smooth and melodic to be punk and too powerful and driving to be pop, Ted Leo’s formula works wonders. Like his predecessors The Clash and The Jam, Leo and his band are able to rock hard without sacrificing a commitment to melody and song structure. The brainy lyrics and catchy hooks are ingredients in a recipe that makes Hearts of Oak one of the most exciting and engaging early releases of 2003. ˝
Hearts of Oak is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2003 The Music Box