BY JASON TOON Ted Leo & the Pharmacists The Brutalist Bricks (Matador)
When people call Ted Leo "the thinking man's punk," what they're getting at is this: His best songs hang suspended halfway between the urgent directness of punk and the compositional and lyrical richness of the singer-songwriter tradition. At his worst, Leo's songs have neither: They're well-constructed, but bland, chunks of riffage that draw no blood on their journey in one ear and out the other. Don't know what I'm talking about? Listen to his latest, The Brutalist Bricks. It offers plenty of both.
The latest iteration of Leo's Pharmacists can rock their asses off, especially drummer Chris Wilson and bassist Marty Key. But who listens to a Ted Leo album for amazing feats of rock strength? Bricks relies too often on that dubious power rather than infectious melodies and adventurous rhythms. The result is, paradoxically, one of the least varied and most uneven albums in his catalogue.
"The Mighty Sparrow" starts things off well enough. Catchy, propulsive, a cute title reference to a legendary calypsonian: Ted Leo, present and accounted for. But "Mourning in America" crashes and buzzes without a memorable hook in sight, and "Ativan Eyes" never really takes off to realize its widescreen pop ambitions. The modish "Even Heroes Have To Die" should be better than it is - it sounds like a classic Leo anthem while you're listening to it, but try humming it five minutes later. And "The Stick" is a hapless stab at hardcore, or something, substituting mere speed and noise for wit and charm.
By the time we get to "Bottled in Cork," us listeners are as grateful as desert wanderers stumbling across an oasis: a sharp, concise melody! A compelling, distinctive arrangement! Drunken travelogue poetry! The first song on the album that's definite greatest-hits material! We knew you had it in you, Ted! Alas, "Woke Up Near Chelsea" follows it up with all Leo's worst flaws: a dull minor-key melody, a histrionically strained vocal, generic rock and roll that neither rocks nor rolls, and a chorus that should be buried somewhere on side two of a lesser Judas Priest album.
Which makes the breathy soul-punk of "One Polaroid a Day" all the more surprising. Over an uncharacteristically funky bassline, Leo explores the lower registers of his voice and keeps the melody simple and on-point. Lyrically, it's one of the most interesting ideas he's ever had, warning about the impossibility of fully living life while also trying to chronicle every detail of that life: "In the time it takes to turn the camera on, you can keep on clicking but the moment's gone... You kill the moment when you cling." It says something that the most adventurous tune on this album is also its most impressive. From there, Bricks wobbles to the finish line. "Where Was My Brain?" comes as close to unalloyed '77 punk as Leo ever gets - it's as fast as "The Stick" but doesn't forget the hooks, and hence, the fun. "Bartolomeo and the Buzzing of Bees" is another midtempo mid-level addition to the Leo oeuvre, neither offensive nor exciting. "Tuberculoids Arrive in Hop" shoots for a freak-folk vibe that fits Leo like a caftan that was left in the dryer too long. Then comes the enjoyable surging, trebly punk of "Gimme the Wire" to get our hopes up for the album's closer. It's been a tough ride, Ted, but we know you can bring it home - and the soft/loud rocker "Last Days" mostly delivers, mostly by keeping it simple. It's no "Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?" but it's enough to remind us what we liked about the guy.
Leo's one of those guys who gets penalized for setting such an impossibly high standard for himself - in his case with 2003's towering Hearts of Oak. And it hurts to criticize such a smart, big-hearted, talented guy with such impeccable musical taste. You're always rooting for him even when he's getting on your nerves. But while half of these songs are good-to-great, the other half evoke the same poured-concrete sameness as the album's title, and no amount of goodwill can turn a bland song interesting. As he always does, Leo obviously put a lot of thought, care, and effort into The Brutalist Bricks. Too bad he didn't put more hooks into it.