Ted Leo & the Pharmacists

at Empty Bottle, February 22

Ted Leo’s Epiphone hollow-body has “No War” affixed to it in rough strips of duct tape. It was a quick tape-job, done minutes before going onstage at Late Night with Conan O’Brien, where the message was broadcast to millions–a week and a bit later, the letters are fraying slightly. “No War!” someone yells between songs, hoping that Leo will pick up the call. Instead, he looks down at the duct tape and gives a sheepish nod. He’s not dodging the issue like so many of the millionaires on parade at this year’s Grammys did. (Brah-core icon Fred Durst takes the cake for his hamfisted “this war should go away as soon as possible.”) It’s just that whatever Leo might say, he’s already put it better in his songs. Leo’s aversion to grandstanding is evident on his new album, Hearts of Oak (Lookout), which perfectly captures the melancholy of life after September 11 without once mentioning the World Trade Center. Instead Leo writes beautiful, simple songs about surviving ugly, complex times. And seeing him live, experiencing his playful, unself-conscious manner, makes those songs seem even more direct, until it feels like there are only two people in the room: you and him.

What makes Leo’s literate, edgy pop even more compelling is that a decade earlier he would have sneered at the concept. He spent the first half of the 90s playing in the hardcore bands Citizens Arrest and Animal Crackers; in 1995 he formed the fantastic, mod-influenced Chisel, whose 1996 album, 8 A.M. All Day, still holds up. But his gift for popcraft wasn’t fully apparent until four years ago, on his first solo outing, the oddly titled Tej Leo/Rx Pharmacists (Gern Blandsten), a messy, sometimes brilliant collection of 19 self-recorded tracks, including some unnecessary dub experiments, that sounded more like a bunch of spliced-together demos than a full-fledged album.

A year later Leo released Treble in Trouble, an EP featuring the first incarnation of the Pharmacists, his backing band of friends, including members of the Make-Up and the Secret Stars; the players have changed since, but the name’s stayed the same. Treble followed up on the more promising aspects of Leo’s chaotic first album and demonstrated his commitment to documenting both the personal and the political. The vicious “Abner Louima v. Gov. Pete Wilson” was an artful indictment of police brutality–and indie rock for being so useless in the face of serious issues: “There’s a man in Brooklyn who police are messing up ’til dawn / While The Man in California gives them semiautomatic guns / And we can’t even function when we’re not in a band.” Leo’s 2000 follow-up, The Tyranny of Distance, was even better, offering jangling guitars, steady beats, and heady lyrics (“All in all, we cannot stop singing / We cannot start sinking / We swim until it ends”). But it was just the setup for this year’s Hearts of Oak.

“It’s times like these / When a neck looks for a knife / A wrist for a razor / A heart is longing for bullets,” Leo sings on “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?,” the second track on the new disc and his third song at the Empty Bottle. It’s both a celebration of the power of pop songs to release us momentarily from the reality of the day-to-day and a lament for the inability of those songs to liberate us completely. “Tension is high under sea and over sky / Pressure drop, people are acting foolish,” Leo continues, drawing that last word out for a full eight beats. “Ooh–but it’s easy to see / Ooh–we could dance and be free / Ooh–to that 2-Tone beat / But it looks like it’s gone.” Leo seems to relish the paradox of writing a powerful pop song about how no one’s writing powerful pop songs anymore, and he’s crafted an entire album that straddles that same difficult line. In the hands of a less adept writer and performer, the music would crumble under the weight of imposed significance. But Leo’s ability to forge unique melodies from borrowed tunes–as well as his commitment to the backbeat–holds the album together.

Leo’s never been above using someone else’s riff, bass line, or beat–he’s lifted from everyone from Cheap Trick to Curtis Mayfield. At times a Pharmacists record can sound like the best mix tape you never got. But Leo’s love for his record collection never makes him sound like he’s run out of ideas; instead it sounds as though he’s paying homage to his pop predecessors–and to their own knack for lifting ideas. It’s only fair that “Tell Balgeary, Balgury is Dead” cops a few bars of its bass line from the Jam’s “Smithers-Jones”–after all, Paul Weller did something similar with the Beatles’ “Taxman” for the Jam’s “Start.” And Leo’s fans love spotting the influences. “Other bands, they get the ‘Free Bird’ guy,” Leo says sheepishly after a small but vocal minority in the crowd has been yelling “Thin Lizzy!” for a good ten minutes. “We get the ‘Jail Break’ guy.” Leo never gives them “Little Girl in Bloom,” the Lizzy tune he covered on Treble in Trouble, instead choosing Tyranny’s “Timorous Me.” I’m not sure if it’s the Lizziest song in his repertoire (there are plenty to choose from), but there is a resemblance.

As Leo sings the song, which he introduced the last time he played here as an “Irish wake,” it occurs to me that he won’t be playing rooms the size of the Empty Bottle for long, given his exposure on TV and in mags like Rolling Stone. He’s gotta be Metro bound, and even if he doesn’t move on to places bigger after that, he damn sure won’t be selling his own merch out of a suitcase at the back of the club, taking ten minutes for each T-shirt, caught up in conversations while he’s making change. The quiet but ominous hum that rumbles out when Leo kick starts his analog delay won’t be audible then; the grin that takes over his face when he nails a mouthful of a line like “And maybe it was me or maybe it was my brother, but either me or me and him went down to the bar” won’t be as visible, and neither will the subtle eye contact and small smiles passed between Leo, drummer Chris Wilson, and bassist Dave Lerner, as they goad each other into playing the blazing fast five-minute number “Parallel or Together.” And Leo won’t be able to make his way across the club, hugging the folks he knows in the crowd. (Man there were a lot of them last Saturday.)

But hopefully Leo will never lose his unpretentious approach to songwriting. There are no long-winded diatribes about U.S. foreign policy tonight, no tear-jerking appeals for peace. The closest Leo comes to the explicitly political is a quick story about seeing Al Green play in D.C. a few years ago. The crowd had gotten slightly out of control, Leo explains, and Green, hoping to calm them, said, “Please, don’t step on the children.” Leo waits a beat, adds, “Extrapolate from that what you will–please don’t step on the children,” then hits the opening chords to “Bridges, Squares,” a song that uses architecture as a metaphor for life after September 11.

“It’s not the time to ossify,” Leo cries. “It’s not the end of wondering why / It’s not in your faith or your apostasy / It’s not the end of history.” The song, its syncopated beat played double time tonight, nails it perfectly: now isn’t the time to stop pushing. Even though something terrible happened, Leo seems to say, history is happening every moment of every day, the same way “the Red Line train will pass behind / As long as bridge joins stream and sky.” Here’s the perfect antidote to Alan Jackson-style schmaltz–Leo knows damn well that the world didn’t stop turning on September 11. And he knows that you know it too, so he doesn’t have to drive the point home with anything but his lyrics. He’s not out to save that world, he just wants to live in it. And maybe, for tonight, dance a little too.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.