Great Fucking Albums #25: Shake the Sheets

Here in Los Angeles, spring has sprung and that means the fucking sun is going to shine every single day between now and when I finally blow this popsicle stand in August (Bollocks! will continue when I move to Portland to start grad school, but updates will probably get more sporadic for a while). Temperatures may not return even to the 60s until November, and I might be the only person in this city who takes a dim view of such weather. The bright side is that we enjoy a long season for so-called “summer” records – albums that make you want to turn up the volume and drive quickly to pretty much anywhere. Or, more commonly in L.A., albums that are great for relieving your fury while you’re stuck in traffic because apparently everyone else decided to ditch work and go to the beach today too.

I’m rambling, I know, but the reason I mention weather and being stuck in traffic (and needing music that will prevent murder whilst you’re stuck in said traffic) is because I’ve been listening to Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ Shake the Sheets a lot lately and when I can’t stop listening to an album, I am compelled to consider listing it as a Great Fucking Album. Though we here at Bollocks! like all of the albums we’ve heard by Mr. Leo and his Pharmacists, I’ve elected Shake the Sheets to be their first (but by no means last) entry on my ever-expanding list of Great Fucking Albums.

Shake the Sheets was recorded as a trio – Ted Leo on vocals/guitar, Dave Lerner on bass, and Chris Wilson on drums – and released in 2004. The album is clearly a visceral response to the Baby Bush presidency, but if that’s all it was, there would be no need to discuss it here. No, Shake the Sheets is a Great Fucking Album because it has riffs and hooks to spare and much of what Leo said about Bush is applicable to the current regime (before I get Obama-worshipping hate mail: I like Obama, I voted for him and I dedicated hours upon hours to volunteering for him. That said, his Department of Justice is still treating your civil liberties like most of us treat toilet paper. I applaud Obama for beginning to withdraw troops from Iraq and planning an Afghanistan draw-down this summer, for getting the New Start treaty signed, for getting rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and for [finally] refusing to defend the indefensible Defense of Marriage Act. But blindly  and uncritically following leaders – especially if you like them – is not healthy for your democracy).

Though the exceedingly toxic political climate of the day was clearly on Leo’s mind during the writing and recording of Shake the Sheets, the album is not as depressive as a lot of its topics, which include war (obviously), healthcare (“when you can’t afford a broken nose/ how can you afford to fight?”), and the inability of the working poor to fight bad government because they’re too busy trying to survive. That said, the music is purely life-affirming stuff. Some of Ted Leo’s finest melodies are on Shake the Sheets, especially tracks like “Counting Down the Hours,” “Criminal Piece,” and “Bleeding Powers.” Sure, the album was fueled by a lot of anger, but the joy of making really fucking loud rock music is a great antidote to anger (half-assed political theory: the people who want to control you hate it when you have fun. So rocking out can be a rebellious act in and of itself) and Leo and the Pharmacists use the musical exuberance of Shake the Sheets to hone their frustration to a fine point. I didn’t even hear this album until 2007 (I think), but looking back, I’d say that Shake the Sheets and the Arcade Fire’s Funeral (along with “The Day After Tomorrow” from Tom Waits’ Real Gone) pretty much sum up everything I felt about 2004 (especially the line “Your peace and quiet is criminal/ while there’s injustice in this town” from “Criminal Piece”).

I’ve mentioned a few times fairly recently that Ted Leo deserves a lot more respect as a guitar player than he currently receives. I love his tone and he plays his guitar like it’s a weapon – in his hands, it is a weapon. But on Shake the Sheets, Leo plays with unmatched ferocity, despite the fact that that there aren’t a ton of long solos on the album (and only one song ventures past the five minute mark). For example, he blasts some awesome melodic lines underneath the end of “The One Who Got Us Out” (while singing, “I’ll put it to you plain and bluntly/ I’m worried for my tired country”), adding considerable beef to the song (I know Ted Leo’s a vegan, but I think he’ll get the metaphor) but never squashing it to prove that he can play a million notes really fast. Unlike a lot of your mega-famous guitarists, Ted Leo doesn’t play like he’s trying to prove he’s awesome; he plays like he’s got some fucking work to do.

Underneath the decidedly punk bent of most of Ted Leo & the Pharmacists’ music, there frequently lurks a strong pop sensibility that enables them to create catchy songs that still carry substantive weight. This is kind of what Green Day tried to do with American Idiot (released the same year as Shake the Sheets, but to a stupefying amount of acclaim. To show you just how much American Idiot changed the American political landscape, I will give you two pieces of information. First, they made a fucking Broadway musical out of it and now Universal is going to make a fucking movie based on that musical), but with worse music. Of course, no album is going to end all of the injustice in the world (especially not a Green Day album), but Shake the Sheets is an excellent soundtrack for people who will never stop trying. I know it sounds cliché, but studies have shown conclusively that if you never try to change the shit you don’t like in life, that shit gets worse and the next thing you know, Donald Trump is a legitimate contender for the presidency. Although I have to give Trump credit for trying to change the things he doesn’t like in life. I’m just sad that “things he doesn’t like” basically means “black people.”

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