Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - The Brutalist Bricks
Record Label: Matador
Release Date: March 9, 2010
Regardless which amorphous definition of "punk" you subscribe to, it's hard to deny that Ted "The Motherfucking Man" Leo is the real deal. First as the frontman for Chisel and subsequently as head Pharmacist, Leo's been weaving together folk, pop, hardcore and old-time rock and roll into personal and political anthems for twenty years now, and with his new album The Brutalist Bricks, he showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, though Ted Leo devotees will probably forever stand behind The Tyranny of Distance, this stands right up there as one of his strongest sets of songs yet.
With a career as consistent as Leo's has been, it's probably easy to dismiss a new disc as just another solid entry into his discography and have a "nothing new to see here" attitude toward it. It's true that he's not breaking down any barriers stylistically, content with sticking to what he does best. But here's the rub: as a songwriter, vocalist, lyricist, all across the board, Ted Leo is at the top of his game, and given the material he's churned out in the past, that's a strong statement.
Leo's ability to craft songs teeming with pop melody and punk energy is well known, and by opening Bricks with "The Mighty Sparrow", he proves that his knack at creating that balance hasn't gone anywhere. He warns, "you better watch what you ask for, 'cause some day, it just might come," on the buzzing, acerbic "Mourning in America", a sly turn on Ronald Reagan's 1984 campaign slogan. Ever the populist, he notes, "the new millenium's tough, for some more than others [it's] a ridiculous understatement," on the driving "Ativan Eyes", and despite the newly instated administration, he makes it clear he's still far from satisfied: "I'm so sick of cynics and I want something to trust in." His musings on mortality on "Even Heroes Have to Die" ("no one lives for ever, no one's wise to try") seem to explain why he's still out making music with more urgency than men half his age. And only Leo could open the catchiest song on an album full of sticky hooks with the line, "there's a resolution pending on the United Nations floor" (from "Bottled in Cork").
Should the day ever arrive when there are no longer political issues to harp on, an exceedingly unlikely proposition, Leo could still easily make a career out of his sharp, observant eye. The danceable "One Polaroid a Day", which sounds like one part XTC and one part Climax Blues Band, finds him breathily exploring the lower end of his range and pointing out the prevailing obsessive need to chronicle our lives in photographs (or "document decay" as he cleverly calls it). "In the time it takes to turn your cameras on, you can keep on clicking but the moment's gone," he sings, seemingly espousing a Zen-like presence of mind. As we float on in Hieronymus Bosch's Ship of Fools, comfortable, oblivious, and indulgent in our own trivialities, Ted Leo's watching and taking mental notes of everything.
And that's why we love him. Releasing one impressive record after another every couple years is a surefire recipe for getting yourself taken for granted, and with this in mind, it would be easy for Leo to phone in a record here and there, but the passion is still very much alive in his music, dripping from every note. He's attained that elder statesman status, where you normally hear records that sound like the artist mindfully winding down his career, the type of records you listen to with a sense of respect as well as wistful longing for the good old days. The Brutalist Bricks sounds nothing like that at all. Ted Leo is still very much in his prime, and Bricks is as relevant (and as great) a record as you'll hear in 2010.