Unknown, or at least underrated, Ted Leo swivels his hips like a young Elvis P. and sneers like a younger Elvis C. on Hearts of Oak, pounding the pulpit and sounding the alarm. Flipping through a history book while rocketing into the future, he still can't quite escape what's going on right-freaking-now. Such as: The black-and-white brotherhood of the Specials and Two-Tone has been replaced by "gangsters and clowns with a stereotyped sound"; no longer can Leo "dance to be free," as he laments on "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?" And: There's another Desert Storm brewing, and Leo sees "no end in sight to this darkening night," "calling on all majors to end this general despair" on "Tell Balgeary, Balgury is Dead." But Leo knows how to talk about Important Issues without ever sounding like he's trying to, always waiting with a spoonful of sugar to help his medicine go down. "If there's a war, another shitty war to fight for Babylon," Leo sings on the propaganda-puncturing "The High Party," "then it's the perfect storm in a teacup/But you must drink it down"; while the lyrics aim for brains, the beat has its sights set on ankle sprains, walking on a high-wire guitar line all the way to the dance floor, by way of his old poli-sci prof's office, of course.
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Helps that Leo is one of the few songwriters who can use five-cent words such as "ossify" and "apostasy" in a chorus, as he does on "Bridges, Squares," and not come off as, well, a square. And that he's able to dial up memories of the Jam, Billy Bragg and the Clash, but smart enough to hang up before anyone can complete the trace; Hearts of Oak is equal parts familiar and foreign, a new show that fits just as well as the old one. Helps even more that he's got a full-time band now--as opposed to the committee that showed up on 2001's The Tyranny of Distance. Backed by drummer Chris Wilson, bassist Dave Lerner and Dorien Garry on electric piano and organ, Leo is allowed to sink into his role as the leader of a rock band that wants to be a soul band that wants to be a rock band that wants to be a soul band, and so on. Leo's Pharmacists keep the beat elastic and the rest spastic, especially on "The Ballad of the Sin Eater," when they travel around the globe (Belfast, a tour with the French Foreign Legion, Ibiza, Damascus, wherever) and come home with a fever--and the only prescription is more cowbell. Before it all comes to an end as "The Crane Takes Flight," Leo listens to the "Dead Voices" then becomes one on "I'm a Ghost," but make no mistake: Hearts of Oak is made for the living, a reminder of all that music used to be and all that it could be again.