White New Jersey, for what it is (big, proud, defiant, suburban, American, a punchline) and what it is not (New York, a punchline), has made its contributions to popular music in many ways. Springsteen, Bon Jovi and Sinatra, of course, come to mind, collectively typifying nothing in particular. There was a Hoboken scene for a time; Fountains of Wayne and the Smithereens; the Jersey Shore clubs that begat Bruce; in the punk realm (Misfits, Adrenalin OD) the Garden State has served an ancillary role akin to Orange County. Elsewise, there’s no dominant sound or style to lay at its doorstep.
Ted Leo (formerly of Chisel and Sin Eaters) is very much a New Jersey star, a bit of an underdog and an outsider, well aware of his forebears and the subordinate status he inherited, yet confident and determined in his own originality, which he has grown into (and beyond), rising to formidable stature as a hard-working, politically minded ball of creative pop-punk energy. If the singer-guitarist didn’t actually graduate from the class of ’77 (he would have been seven at the time), he certainly crashed the reunion and held his own with the originals.
Leo’s solo debut (usually referred to as self-titled or Ted Leo / Pharmacists, although that’s not quite what appears on the cover) is a piece of crap: half-baked songs poorly recorded and drowned in junior-league studio gimmickry. A quiet solo electric performance of “Set You Free” is well worth hearing, and “Walking Through” is a straightforward indication of things to come, but the album as a whole is a loss. The formation of a proper band dubbed the Pharmacists was heralded on the five-song Treble in Trouble, which was produced by Brendan Canty of Fugazi and takes a wide conceptual berth, as it begins with “Abner Louima v. Gov. Pete Wilson” and ends with a Thin Lizzy cover.
Also produced by Canty (who plays drums on one song; his brother James, who was in the Nation of Ulysses and its successor, the Make-Up, takes the throne on three others), The Tyranny of Distance sets Leo straight on the path to glory, with thoughtful, provocative songs, carefully organized performances and sparks of the incendiary enthusiasm and guitar outbursts for which he would become known. The swaying eight-minute “Stove by a Whale” proves him equal to stretching out and still have something to say. The lyrics, which use big words without getting carried away, portray an outsider, nursing wounds and memories, trying to find a way to reconnect; It takes some bottle for a firebrand, even one from New Jersey, to sing a song like “Timorous Me” without sounding like a weed, but Leo slaps the anecdotal reminiscence to a Lizzy-like melody, tunes the rhythm section out for the first half and makes it work. The only political song, “My Vien Lin,” starts with Vietnam references but drops them for complicated references to James Joyce and winds up somewhere else entirely. Not overpowering, but strong and stirring.
Hearts of Oak unveils an all-new Pharmacists lineup in which Leo (guitar, organ, melodica) is joined by Dorien Garry (piano, organ), Dave Lerner (bass) and Chris Wilson (drums). With a streamlined rock attack (even while namechecking the ska stars of the 2-Tone roster in “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” and pulling up minor dub production effects in the title track) and more articulate songwriting, the impact is inconsistent but stronger. Leo hits his stride mid-disc, with the frenetic barrage of “The Ballad of the Sin Eater,” “Dead Voices” and “Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead”; although the words here turn deep and meaningless (“this land of fungible convictions”? “In the birth of his hand was the dirge of his end”?), the songs’ sonic impact is clear. Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead is a nine-song expansion of the album’s second single, adding demo-style voice-and-guitar solo performances of originals (including a preview of a Shake the Sheets highlight, “Bleeding Powers”) and rough covers of the Jam’s “Ghosts,” the Pogues’ “Dirty Old Town” and Split Enz’ “Six Months in a Leaky Boat.”
Shake the Sheets picks up the pace with a thicket of jabbing high-speed guitar jangle that hones the serrated melodic edge of end-of-the-’70s British power pop: early Jam, the Chords, Squares, Vapors, Jags, Members, Yachts, etc. The production by Chris Shaw is a rip-snorting marvel of compressed tightness straining at the seams, and Leo’s singing (showing a few traces of a soul side) has never been more confident or convincing. His lyric-writing is also on a new plane: a mix of the wistful and the inflamed. At his most judgmental, Leo throws down the gauntlet in “Criminal Piece,” making the case that inaction is action: “So, so long to you moderates / Yeah, it’s time for gettin’ down / Your peace and quiet is criminal / While there’s injustice in your town.” The first great album of his career.
But that was just a windup for Living With the Living, an impassioned, angry and devastating document. At its best, the album feels almost unpremeditated, a musical cyclone that spews out traces of Squeeze, Plimsouls, Jam, Clash and many others (including, gulp, Culture Club), hewing more to their values than their sound. With smart, forceful production by a returning Brendan Canty, Leo flies the flag of indignation and righteousness with unstoppable energy. On topics both personal (“A Bottle of Buckie,” “Colleen”) and global (“Bomb. Repeat. Bomb,” “Fourth World War,” “Army Bound”), he and the rhythm section blast away, landing jabs and hooks. Check “C.I.A,” the restrained “La Costa Brava” and “Who Do You Love” (which faintly resembles the Rumour’s “Emotional Traffic”), “The World Stops Turning” and “The Lost Brigade.”