The Bawdy Politik - Ted Leo and the Pharmacists write prescriptions for apathy
By Barnaby Monk 04.11.07
I woke up with tinnitus. There was a bag full of crispy chicken sandwiches from Carl's Jr. on my nightstand and a soda in a paper cup sweating a puddle beside. The words " Bomb! Repeat! Bomb! Repeat! Bomb!!! " were slam dancing in my cranium.
I've had some strong tea and flipped the brainstation through "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?" to " me and youwhooooo.and a bottle of buckie ." I hope someone asks me today what I did last night, because I want to see what it would feel like to say the words, "I went to Mira Mesa to see Ted Leo and the Pharmacists."
I'd never been to the all-ages Epicentre - I prefer places where everybody has a beer belly - but it was fine. Easy to find. Parking was plentiful. Kids were nice enough. Standing before the building's prow shape and big pink neon sign, I suggested to the teen patting me down, "They should call it Good Ship Lollipop.y'know, cuz no drinking or smoking.looks like a big pink ship." He took my lighter, stuffed it down inside the ticket box, and thumbed me toward the entrance without a word. I just bought that lighter too.
Inside, Ted Leo, a 37-year-old New Jersey native, and his pharmacists - Dave Lerner and his giant afro on bass, Chris Wilson and his big beard on drums, "touring guitarist" James Canty on, well, the "touring guitar," I guess - were rocking Hearts of Oak 's "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?" It's probably Leo's most popular tune - though I don't think the word "popular" suits anything about Leo in any abstraction - based on, when I'd tell people I was going to the show or invited someone along, they'd go, "The rude guy?" So, there you are.
Leo slings a big noisy hollowbody and sports a short headahair, anglo '80s trad tight blacks, and one of his trademark soccer tops. Mexico, this time, which I wouldn't have noticed hadn't someone yelled out " Viva la Mehico! " between songs, to which Leo replied, "Indeed," and then suggested there was much to talk about the goings on down there. "Let's here it!" prodded the audience yeller guy, but Leo, in his manner, said it wasn't the time or the place. Then the band lashed into "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb," a stirring punk'd anthem about indiscriminate bomb raids off their latest disc, the excellent Living with the Living .
Along with choice cuts off of Tyranny of Distance and Shake the Sheets , other highlights from the latest release included the pop of "La Costa Brava," rave-up "Bottle of Buckie," and the danceable dub of "The Unwanted Things," clearly the audience faves.
Leo is a consummate rawk guitarist, and live he plays to his strengths, shifting from power chords to his signature mid-range hooks and high-end voicings with noisy bravado. As a vocalist, he is a singer's singer with a powerful punk whelp and the ability to stretch a word like taffy to change the color of a line. His vocal melodies and writing style are informed by Paul Weller, Joe Strummer, and Guy Piccioto of Fugazi, a band that, because of their fierce musical independence and humanist politics, Leo holds in high esteem. In fact, Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty engineered and mixed the new Leo disc.
Because of its pop appeal and considered accessibility, Leo's been getting a lot of press for Living with the Living , including a showcase on NPR's All Songs Considered, a fine pairing of the progressive-artsy station and vocal vegan activist. Leo's skill lies in his ability to politick lyrically, with insightful (if cynical) observation of current events and bawdy social-isms, while wrapping his views in punk-inflected pop music: danceable, singable, exciting and inciting.
In a recent interview with The Onion , the AVClub asked Ted Leo about Neil Young's assertion that contemporary musicians aren't interested in writing protest songs. Leo, who is adamantly, poetically lyrical about world crises and the U.S.'s hand in them, posted a reply to the venerable singer-songwriter and had this to say about the disagreement: " .I can't stomach this leftover, Baby-Boomer lecturing. Honestly, they're the fucking assholes who created the music industry. They're the shitheads who have figured out how to actually turn rebellion into money. I can't allow them to then turn around and call out the monsters that they created for being monsters. It's driving me crazy."
Now, obviously Leo isn't blaming Neil Young for single-handedly commodifying the art form, but he is suggesting, as he does in his songs, that where there should be responsibility - on the part of successful artists like Young, industry leaders, world leaders, politicians, teachers, parents.each and every one of us - there's a pervasive apathy. And Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are kicking at that apathy the best way they know how, by rocking it to its foundation.
Other stuff: I just got the new Grinderman disc, which came out this week. Grinderman is Nick Cave and a handful of his Bad Seeds. Cave's on guitar instead of piano here, playing filthy and singing some pretty fun, sexy stuff. Check out their video for "No Pussy Blues" on YouTube if you haven't already. I'm gonna put that on repeat now and climb back in bed with my sack of chicken sandwiches, slurp soda off my nightstand.
See ya'll at the Deerhunter/Ponys show this Sunday night at Beauty Bar. Best five bucks you'll spend all year.