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Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - The Brutalist Bricks

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Artist: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists

Album: The Brutalist Bricks

Label: Matador

Review date: Mar. 8, 2010

Punk rock idealism has always put great faith in the people, a semi-fictional mass of ordinary folks who, once freed from the influence of big government, big corporations and organized religion, can be relied on to do the right thing. It’s the impetus behind fist-pumping, head-banging anthems from the Clash down to Fugazi, and, to be honest, it’s hard to square with the Tea Party backlash. The people, it turns out, are Medicare beneficiaries terrified of socialized medicine, working people hanging on by the hair of their teeth and still mad about the estate tax, and fundamentalist Christians who care deeply about the value of human life right up to the point of childbirth and not a second beyond. They watch a lot of Fox News.

Ted Leo, one of the last socially-engaged punk rockers standing, has the unenviable challenge of rallying “the long-manipulated and the willfully dumb” (“Mourning in America”) to the cause of justice. The brutalist bricks are flying in his sixth full-length, tossed by an angry mob that should, in its own interest, be on the other side. Though images of suicide bombing, torture and the end of the world flit through his songs, it’s the people themselves that seem the scariest. And yet, paradoxically, the complexity of this worldview gives his songs an added punch. There are no unadulterated good guys in the ravaged world he holds to account, no hard truths, no absolutes, and that, in some way, makes his principled stance more touching. “We strive to survive, causing the least suffering possible,” he sings in “Ativan Eyes,” and it’s a modest manifesto, a kind of last stand against selfishness gone epidemic.

Leo’s last album, Living with the Living was a hodgepodge of styles — a little pub rock, a bit of hardcore, a reggae song, an Irish ditty — and it felt a bit like a series of studies, rather than a fully-conceived whole. This one draws on the same range of influences, but pulls them together more effectively. Undulant reggae basslines snake through new wave melodies, florid Celtic soul falsettos flitter over hammerhead punk rampages, Oi! band shout-outs bump fists with spiraling Thin Lizzy guitar solos. The pieces are all there, but fitted into a cohesive statement. Even the misty CSNY folk ballad “Tuberculoids Arrive in Hop” slips easily into its slot, though you have to wonder where they found all those crickets in Brooklyn.

Brutalist Bricks is a serious album, a mature album, with Leo still punching, still slashing, but, in some sense, standing back and watching himself from a remove. He is, as he puts it, “just a loner in a world of kids…egos and IDs,” aware of exactly how much impact a singer in a punk rock band can have. (Not a lot, even with the jump to Matador.) Even at his most nostalgic and personal (and Irish) in “Bottled in Cork,” an impressionistic diary of tour stops and family connections, he doubles back to politics with the observation, “Brutal mockeries of justice dog my steps.”

And though there’s purpose and soul-searching and spigot-wide-open blasts of politically imagery on every track, Brutalist Bricks is also full of animal spirits. The band — that’s Discord mainstay James Canty on guitar and keys, Marty Key on bass and Chris Wilson playing drums — plays clean and taut and hard behind Leo, whether banging out the rampage of “The Stick” or slithering over the very Costello-ish “One Polaroid a Day.” They’re great at the dead stop (“The Stick”), which is harder than it sounds, and unselfishly excellent in the more temperate tracks. It’s a sharp, hard sound, with little give in it. In fact, Leo’s voice sliding and fluttering like Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Kevin Rowland in full Northern soul mode, is the only soft element here, the sweetener that makes the medicine go down.

There are a clutch of great songs here (“Mighty Sparrow,” “Mourning in America,” “Even Heroes Have to Die,” “Gimme the Wire”) and no real dead spots. Leo was impressive even when he was an unmitigated idealist but now, older and less sure of things, he is even better.

By Jennifer Kelly

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