If I were to teach a class on How to Be a Guitar Hero, there would be a substantial unit on Ted Leo (in among units on Jimi Hendrix, Tad Kubler, Django Reinhardt, Elmore James, Peter Buck, and a weekend seminar called Fuck Joe Satriani*). Leo is a guy who can rip into a blazing, badass guitar solo on a moment’s notice but, tellingly, he doesn’t always need to. He’s also a blissfully funky rhythm guitarist and his tone is perfectly suited to his punkish rock – really, I would call his music punk-pop if it didn’t conjure up images of Blink-182, Sum-41 and other truly shitty bands with numbers in their names. (Try to name a good band with a number in their name. The closest I can come is the 101ers, the pub rock band Joe Strummer was in before he joined the Clash. And they were kinda mediocre. On the other hand, you can have an X in your name and be pretty good – see X and the XX for proof.)
Over his last few albums, Leo has managed to craft really catchy pop melodies with a musical and lyrical edge that gives him a lot more punk cred in any one song than Green Day can get in one redundant, trite “concept” album. If you play Green Day’s “Holiday” next to Ted Leo’s “Bomb.Repeat.Bomb” and still prefer the former as your “Fuck Baby Bush” anthem, I suggest you might need to recalibrate your inner sense of what is and what is clearly not awesome. Or maybe you’re thirteen and there’s still hope you’ll grow out of your current silliness.
Ted Leo’s 2007 effort, Living with the Living was a lovely endeavor (one of my favorite records of that year), if a bit lengthy. This year, Leo and the Pharmacists (Marty Key on bass, James Canty on guitar, and a very beardy Chris Wilson on drums) are back with The Brutalist Bricks, an album that wanders a little less than its predecessor and packs a mighty, tightly focused wallop. As the name and sparse album art suggest, The Brutalist Bricks is a buzzing, bashing, brief but intense mixture of bouncing pop (“Bottled in Cork”) and driving punk (“Where Was My Brain?” and “The Stick”, among others). Ted Leo’s guitar is nothing short of searing on most of these tracks, even when he’s just strumming chords. When he turns loose a solo, he’s like a samurai – a flash of blade here, there, and over there, and then your limbs fall off. That analogy didn’t work quite how I thought, and yet I maintain that it is not entirely inappropriate.
I’m happy to report, having caught Leo and the Pharmacists at the Troubadour on Saturday night, that these songs are even better live. Interspersed with some great cuts from Shake the Sheets and Living with the Living, Leo showcased eight of the thirteen tracks that make up The Brutalist Bricks and gave the overly-requesty (at one point, Leo shouted, “Shut the fuck up, we’ll play what we want!” He then paused for a minute, smiled, and said, “You know, I say that with all the love in the world.” He informed the crowd that he was so combative because he was in a good mood, and I took him at his word. He’s a guy who seems to really relish his work) audience a blazing, incredibly energetic show that also featured a chills-inducing solo rendering of the Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues” to start the encore.
As a guitar player, Ted Leo makes it look pretty easy and – more importantly – he makes it sound awesome. Again, this is not just confined to his solos, but even his rhythm playing. If you look at something like “One Polaroid a Day,” the rhythm part is beautiful, and it suits the song. Part of being a true guitar hero, in my mind (the only mind that matters here at Bollocks!, for better or worse), is being able to serve the songs. And seeing Leo perform on Saturday night made me want to come home, plug in my electric guitar, and write really kickass songs. Of course, it was after midnight when I got home and, out of deference to my neighbors, I opted not to get started on that project just yet. But Ted Leo is a guy who knows how to rip shit up within the confines of a good song – that is, the songs are never about his uncanny abilities as a player. Contrast that with, say, Joe Satriani. Satriani’s albums are only about his uncanny ability to play a shitload of notes. There’s not an ounce of meaning in that stuff. Leo does more in the extremely brief “The Stick” by simply crunching out chords (the song also illustrates the debt Mr. Leo owes to Black Flag. In some ways, actually, I’d like to think we all owe a debt to Black Flag).
Of course, Leo is lyrically sharp on The Brutalist Bricks – I would expect nothing less. Never one to back away from a controversial statement, Leo opens “Woke Up Near Chelsea” by shouting, “Well we’ve all got a job to do/ and we all hate God.” However, the best lyrical effort on the album has to be “Mourning in America” for its ability to both recall (and castigate) Ronald Reagan and (I’m speculating here, because the song is not dedicated to any one person, though it is apparently about a “white face in a white crowd”) call out folks like Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck, with lines like, “Whoever told you that we needed you to be this?” My other favorite lines on The Brutalist Bricks come from “The Stick”: “You think the government, it wants you on your knees/ but I’ll tell you something and here it is/ they want you driving to the supermarket, buying milk and cheese/And generating taxes to fuel their corn subsidies.” There should be a listening booth set up to play that song at every Tea Party protest ever. Along with placards that explain to them how Medicare is also socialism.
I was thinking on Saturday night (and early Sunday morning) that, although I never got to see the Clash or any other great punk bands live, the spirit and energy of that kind of music was very much a part of Ted Leo’s show at the Troubadour, a show that stands right near the first time I saw the Hold Steady among my favorite concerts ever. And that spirit drives The Brutalist Bricks, which is why I can’t stop listening to it.
*Before the shred kids come here with threats of my homicide and requests of my suicide, I will confess that I used to listen to Joe Satriani all the time (when I was a kid, I listened to awful music). When I was first learning the guitar, I wanted to be Joe Satriani. But the more I got into writing actual songs, the more soulless his music seemed to me. Joe Satriani’s albums do not consist of songs, they consist of exercises. The Ramones did more with an E chord than Satriani has done in his entire career. So fuck him.