Ted Leo/ Pharmacists
Sun Mar 2
Hearts of Oak, the new album by Boston's Ted Leo/Pharmacists, is another punk rock record in the tradition of Leo's peers and heroes: Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg, Fugazi. It doesn't preserve their sound so much as their approach--Leo is an articulate rebel with ethics and a pack of hooks, literary references, politics, and perfect guitar solos. He sings in fever-pitched paragraphs all over this record like a fiery, mod Elvis Costello, and his lyrics come straight from a family of English majors. (Read the lyrics to his former bands, Chisel and the Sin-Eaters, or his brothers' bands, Holy Childhood, The Lapse and the Van Pelt.)
Ted Leo's solid, intelligent music and humble appeal is infectious, and after playing in underground bands for years, Hearts of Oak has landed Pharmacists in all the major rock mags. Last week, on Conan O'Brien, the band not only rocked the show (they played their first single, "Where Have all the Rude Boys Gone?"), but Leo seized the opportunity to express dissent, by scrawling the words "NO WAR" across his guitar.
It was a punk thing to do, and Leo is a manifestation of punk rock as ideology. While he's outspoken, he's not reactionary, and his intelligence makes him all the more powerful. For instance, on the soccer-themed photo that graces the cover of Hearts of Oak, he comments, "We took the pictures over the summer, when I was in the midst of World Cup Fever. But there's another whole aspect to the 'Hearts of Oak' theme. The phrase comes from an old British naval hymn, where the sailors are singing how their hearts are as strong as the oak of their ships. Also, the Ghanian national soccer team in the '60s was called the Hearts of Oak. It was this crazy Cinderella story where this super-poor nation's team practiced in bare feet in a dirt lot, but they went on to all these international championships. And they became this symbol for pan-African unity when they got going in the '60s, post-colonial period.
"It borders on a Lifetime Network inspirational story, but it was something I was obsessed with when I started writing the stuff on the record. And the song 'Hearts of Oak,' itself, is actually more about girls in punk rock," finishes Leo.
"Hearts of Oak," the song in question, includes the lyric, "If you think everything is cool/can't you hear what the girls go through? Can you tell me that it's not true?"
Okay, Ted Leo knows about pan-African unity, Ghanian soccer teams, AND wrote a song about girls being marginalized in punk rock. I am now in love with him.
"Everything has swung back around in the last few years to where nobody cares about shit anymore!" he continues. "Unless you're going to really pure, underground hardcore shows, nobody fuckin' cares! Nobody cares about the fact that there are no girls onstage, nobody cares about the fact that there are only white people onstage or in the crowd. What's going on? What happened that nobody fuckin' cares anymore?"
This passion is why America, Spin, the Mercury and Conan O'Brien have all fallen for Ted Leo: because he cares enough to write extremely good rock songs that flourish with contentious fervor. He has a backbone, yet he's not alienating, and he represents a voice of the people, much in the way Bruce Springsteen did before he cheesed out on us. You can hear it in Leo's music, which is full of optimism. He says, "Ultimately, it's a very guarded optimism. A sort of resigned-to-futility optimism. It's an optimism based on the idea that the good things exist, and that even if it is a total waste of time and effort to try and actually get them, just know that they're there to give you fuel for the fire."