Leo's Heavy "Sheets" Is Angry Yet Optimistic
In February of this year, Blender magazine asked Ted Leo to do the unthinkable. The intrepid guitarist-songwriter agreed, and one cold New York day he ventured into Union Square for an afternoon of busking. The New Jerseyí‚ raised musician, formerly of Washington, D.C., mod/punk unit Chisel, proceeded to play Starship's "We Built This City", Bette Midler's "From a Distance", Color Me Badd's "I Wanna Sex You Up", Eddie Murphy's "Party All the Time", and 4 Non Blondes' "What's Up?". All had been selected, by Leo, from Blender's list of "The 50 Worst Songs Ever".
"Believe it or not, the 4 Non Blondes song comes out smelling like a rose in that bunch," says Leo, reached at a Houston, Texas, club before a gig. "Just because it's one of those simple but effective chord changes that gets stuck in your head forever. That was definitely the one where people would actually stop and sing along."
How did Leo land such an auspicious assignment? Well, it's likely someone at Blender was a fan of last year's Hearts of Oak. A hook-filled disc combining the tuneful aggression of early British punk with exciting touches of American pop and soul, the album introduced Leo to a new audience with songs like the ska-inflected "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?" and the invigorating title track.
Shake the Sheets, Leo's just-released follow-up with his band the Pharmacists, isn't quite as immediate. But, with leaner arrangements and more muscular playing, it rocks much harder. It's angrier as well, and full of allusions to the Bush administration.
Leo says that when he was writing and recording the album he was exhausted from playing the Hearts of Oak songs. "That was pretty intense at times, working myself up to the level that I do with them every night for two years," he says. "And then I sat down to write a record, and it was like, 'Whoa--everything that's on my mind is basically just a darker version of what was on my mind when I wrote the last record.' "
Leo says the disdainful aggression of songs like "Little Dawn" reflects the resignation he was feeling at the time, but there is also an undeniably hopeful flavour to Shake the Sheets. In the opener, "Me and Mia", for example, he asks, "Do you believe in something beautiful?" in a way that lets the listener know that he absolutely does. And "Walking to Do" closes the record on a note so optimistic the song could almost be used to sell shoes (of the noní‚ brand name, strictly utilitarian variety, of course).
What makes even the most despairing tunes crackle is Leo's crisp guitar-playing, as well as his tight interplay with drummer Chris Wilson and bassist Dave Lerner. Now that the Pharmacists are a three-piece, it's up to the frontman to fill spaces formerly occupied by keyboardist Dorien Garry, and this he does admirably by combining slashing rhythm chords with firebrand riffs.
"I pretty much started playing in a three-piece with Chisel, and about a year ago the Pharmacists reverted to a trio format for the first time in a long time," says Leo. "So when I did write this record, I was back in that guitar mode."
His constant touring in support of Hearts of Oak brought Leo to Vancouver three times, including a Pharmacists gig at Pat's Pub and a solo show a few months later at the Piccadilly Pub. "The Pat's Pub one was kind of like our first visit to Vancouver as the Pharmacists," Leo says. "And it was fun. But I didn't really realize we had some fans up there until those solo shows, both in Victoria and Vancouver, which were much better attended and enthusiastic than I expected. And it wasn't like I'd gotten any bigger, in a mass-media sense, between those two shows. So it was doubly gratifying because it meant word of mouth had spread and people were genuinely appreciative."
Let's just hope that when he returns to Vancouver with the Pharmacists for a show at the Red Room on Wednesday (November 10), he doesn't decide to break into a heartfelt rendition of "We Built This City".