Hard-working Ted Leo inspires great expectations

A couple of weeks ago, someone left a message for Ted Leo, suggesting the musician owed him $20. The caller was disgruntled because when he'd gone to see Leo open for Death Cab for Cutie in Orlando, the New Jersey–born singer had cut his set short. But, as Leo points out on his Web site, at the time he had an "obvious sinus infection", and he'd just finished playing "The Ballad of the Sin Eater"–"an all-out aggressive, long, screaming, energetic song", as he put it.

People expect a lot from him.

"Well, it seems like sometimes some do," says Leo, reached at a Baton Rouge tour stop. "Though I wonder if that's not less about expectations of me than it is of wider cultural issues–expectations of anyone who happens to be on-stage. Treating them as if it's more of a quick iTunes download rather than an actual human event."

If fans have unreasonable expectations, some of the blame must lie at the feet of the guy once called "the hardest-working man in indie rock" by Entertainment Weekly . The Washington, D.C.–based artist is a (nearly) tireless performer and consummate songwriter who has been steadily raising the stakes with each new release. Living With the Living , his fifth with his band the Pharmacists, may be his most fully realized and artfully conceived set, one that captures all of his influences–pop, soul, punk, ska–in three- and four-minute rushes of hook-filled adrenaline.

Probably to the surprise of no one who's followed the outspoken, passionate Leo's career, his latest disc finds the songwriter fixing his critical gaze on the policies of his country's current administration. All the rage and frustration that have been building since the writing of his last album, Shake the Sheets , seep into new tracks like the guitar rave-up "The Sons of Cain", the Fugazi-like assault "Bomb. Repeat. Bomb", and the accusatory charge of "C.I.A."

But it's not all fog of war and folly of men on Living With the Living . Leo's soulful side also gets play in tracks like the reggae-tinged "The Unwanted Things" and the Celtic-flavoured "A Bottle of Buckie". And "La Costa Brava" is simply a thrilling, escapist rocker. But the more overtly political numbers are the ones bound to attract the most attention.

So does Leo, a self-professed news junkie, think artists have an obligation to address what's happening in the world?

"In theory, I want to say no artist should feel beholden to any external pressures," he says. "But because it is my thing, I also then sometimes do feel people do have a responsibility. While it's nice to treat it as an academic exercise about art for art's sake, the world is not just academic exercises. So I guess in some ways I think people do have a responsibility to engage with it a little bit at least."

Does Leo feel that he's more engaged with the world than ever on Living With the Living ? "It could be, but to tell you the truth, I don't feel I'm any more engaged with it than I have been," he contends. Maybe more worried, then? "Yeah, that could be," he says with a chuckle. "That could definitely be."

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists play Richard's on Richards on Wednesday (April 18).