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Idealism doesn't age as well as cynicism. Perhaps that's why punk's earnest socio-politic evolved into the ironic distance of indie rock.
It may also be why there are so few artists like Ted Leo, who've retained both the brash challenge of their rhetoric and its compassionate spirit through two decades of making music. It certainly helps that he avoids simplistic sandwich-board sloganeering—and even more that he writes catchy, punchy music that pays equal debts to the bristling D.C. post-punk and the catchy, indomitable pulse of The Jam.
A New Jersey native who fronted a pair of hard-core bands in the late '80s, Leo moved to D.C. where he started mod-punk act Chisel, which released two critically lauded albums before breaking up in 1997. Eventually, in '99, he started Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. And, since then, he's released six albums of smart, hooky, impassioned indie rock.
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But just as he was hitting a stride after his well-received third and fourth records, 2003's Hearts of Oak and 2004's Shake the Sheets, trouble struck. First his label, longtime indie Lookout Records, went belly up. He found a home with Touch & Go for 2007's Living With the Living, but that record was written while his significant other underwent chemotherapy—and mounting medical bills forced him to spend even more time away on the road. Then lightning struck twice, and Touch & Go shuttered its doors.
But unlike the Living With the Living, whose creation and subject matter weighed heavily on Leo, his latest, Brutalist Bricks, was forged with a recharged attitude. He first began writing the album in the spring of last year, but discarded it because, well, "everything still felt really heavy," he says. "I was like, 'I don't think I actually want to live with this big heavy record, physically and emotionally.'"
He and his band returned to the studio six months later and, though still without a label, Leo's demeanor had changed.
"Being able to step off that hamster wheel where you can't really see what's up around the bend but only what's coming at you fast, it helped me get a little bit of perspective about the whole thing, the whole thing meaning the last 20 years of my life," Leo says. "I think, in a weird way, it opened up the songwriting for a little bit more of just me using my voice and not maybe feeling like I had to say something."
Brutalist Bricks is an eclectic album, notable both for its upbeat attitude and Leo's dip into a more soulful style reminiscent of late period Jam tracks such as "Absolute Beginners" and "A Town Called Malice." Tracks such as "Gimme the Wire" and "Stick" still channel a bracing punk rumble. But others embrace a more hopeful, somewhat R&B-inflected stance—from "Even Heroes Have to Die," which is about the wisdom of growing older, to the jagged, late-night strut of the carpe diem "One Polaroid a Day," and "Bartolomeo and the Buzzing of Bees," with its crooning chorus, "I know I've been resistant/But I feel the change coming on." The best of the lot is "Bottled in Cork," which opens with a punishing rush before settling into a sweet, jangly paean to finding peace in a foreign land by understanding the value of surrender instead of agitation.
He describes writing sincere, hopeful songs as "personal therapy" to deal with his own advancing cynicism. He long ago shed any rose-colored idealism, but being pragmatic's not the same as giving up the fight.
"We're an incredibly unevolved species of people," Leo says. "Technology has taken leaps and bounds in a thousand years, yet we're essentially the same grunting, dragging-women-by-the-hair cartoon cavemen. I don't see any utopia happening in my lifetime or for a long time. But, of course, it happens incrementally, and if you can be even remotely part of one of those increments, I don't see any reason not to be."