The Best of Ted Leo (So Far)

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Ted Leo, widely regarded as the cool uncle of punk rock, has been around the scene for a while. It makes sense given that he spent his formative music years in the hardcore scenes of New Jersey and New York, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s that was the place to be. Despite his musical output, he had a pretty unpunk upbringing – after graduating from Seton Prep, he went on to get an English degree from Notre Dame.

But given the material he’d later put to tape, one wonders if he was actually doing undercover research for his eventual anti-capitalism reportage. It would take a hot minute to cull his entire discography, so here are some particular highlights for Leonine novices.

Chisel – 8 A.M. All Day (1996)

Chisel’s excellent debut set the precedent for what Leo would do with the Pharmacists a few years later, featuring his signature yelping and hypocrisy-shaming lyrics. The record is a lengthy 14 songs long, unlike the usual tracklisting brevity of the group’s contemporaries. Only the uber catchy “The Dog In Me” clocks in over four minutes. The power-punk sound, occasionally interspersed with dissonant guitar licks, is well-rounded thanks to recording help from Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto and his home studio. (This D.C. connect would come in handy later.) The record was released on New Jersey’s Gern Blandsten Records, also home to the Van Pelt (Ted’s brother Chris’ band) and eventually the Pharmacists. Their 1997 followup Set You Free was darker, less hook-focused, and more polished (plus ever so slightly dub-informed). After their supporting tour ended in May, so did the group, which gave way to Leo’s next project.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – The Tyranny of Distance (2001)

Ted Leo’s Pharmacists work began as a post-Chisel 1999 solo project, based in D.C. His first record tej leo(?), Rx / pharmacists was a heady collection of stream of consciousness sampling, and 2000 saw the five song EP Treble in Trouble. But The Tyranny of Distance was the band’s first ensemble effort and bears little resemblance to the half baked stuff preceding it. If anything these songs are overcooked, if you’ll forgive the extended kitchen metaphor. They’re longer, jammier, and more thoughtful. Though not as honed as what was to come (as with most bands), this record is a road map for what they were trying to do – creating a sonic scrapyard where punk could mix freely with classic rock riffs and lengthy pop narratives, and the political could be personal.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – Hearts of Oak (2003)

Hearts of Oak is TL/Rx’s requisite weird album. Given the group’s D.C. headquartering, it makes sense that they would emulate Q and Not U at some point, like the eponymous “Hearts of Oak”. “The Ballad of the Sin Eater”, perhaps named in remembrance of Leo’s previous band the Sin-Eaters, is a fuzzy drone spazz punk number that may be the only other song besides Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances” to reference the Watusi. None of this is to say it’s not a worthy record. It’s full of as many catchy musical ideas as any of their other albums – it just comes with a heaping side of experimentation. It’s also where the group’s rhythm section begins to come into its own, the final variable in their fresh equation.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – Living With The Living (2007)

To be sure, 2003’s Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead and 2004’s Shake The Sheets were fine releases. But they tended more toward straight punk than the quintessential Pharmacists sound. Living With The Living was a return to form and an ambitious, perfectly-executed anti-war concept record. It also continued to showcase Leo’s pro-unity, anti-colonialism sentiments in songs like the filler opener “Fourth World War” and “La Costa Brava”. On the dark end of things are martial tunes like “Bomb. Repeat. Bomb.” and “C.I.A.”, which would sound like paranoid ramblings in the hands of someone less intelligent and clearheaded than Leo.  For such heavy lyrical material, it somehow plays like a beach roadtrip playlist, and it’s all catchy as hell. But what else would you expect?

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – The Brutalist Bricks (2010)

This critical and fan darling of a record plays like a Ted Leo Greatest Hits collection. It starts with a bang on “The Mighty Sparrow” and doesn’t let up in intensity or brilliance. Like Living With The Living, there are dissenting liberal opinions slathered all over each verse and chorus. “Mourning In America” is a pretty brutal assault on historical revisionism, “Ativan Eyes” sort of promotes communism, and the phrase “red, white, and bruised” gets tossed around. More broadly, “One Polaroid A Day” calls out the absurdity of experiencing life through a smartphone lens. The Brutalist Bricks cements Leo’s reputation as a chord progression genius and an underground voice for the discontented majority.

The Both – The Both

Leo’s most recent project is the Hüsker Dü-influenced The Both, a wonderful pop collab with Aimee Mann, the rad indie aunt to his cool uncle. They released their self-titled debut in 2014 to general acclaim. Crunchy guitars, jaunty drums, and funky bass ensue, but the real star is their blended vocals. Aimee has a lower voice than the average gal, and Ted has a higher voice than the average dude, so their duetting is pretty compelling. Both have been involved in a crap ton of projects and it’s quite evident how much respect and love they have for each other, and the record is just utterly enjoyable to listen to – especially its lead single “Milwaukee” which takes the approximate beat of “Reelin In The Years” and puts an anthemic Cheap Trick spin on it (which, incidentally, bears a striking resemblance to TL/Rx’s “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone”). But this time Leo isn’t quite as political incensed, instead playing on themes of reflection and reminiscence.

The Both are gearing up for a (short) string of tour dates over the next couple of months. Check out their dates below!

Tour Dates:

5/10/2015    Central Park    Atlanta, GA
5/11/2015    Cat’s Cradle    Carrboro, NC
7/18/2015    The Crocodile    Seattle, WA
7/19/2015    Project Pabst Festival Portland, OR

Though originally from Virginia, Kelsey recently graduated from the University of Georgia with a cavalcade of neat degrees. She's written for other sites like Wide Open Country, Half Past, Seeing Trees Music, The Cropper, InfUSion Magazine, and Blurt. Kelsey’s greatest weakness is a large bowl of pho, and though she doesn’t know it yet, her friends will soon host a soup intervention for her. In her spare time she enjoys exploring abandoned buildings, crafting dad-humor puns, collecting vintage key chains, writing long lists that utilize the Oxford comma, and acting like Larry David.

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