Hearts of Oak is not only the title of the latest album by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, it's also the name of a Ghanaian soccer team, Cockney rhyming slang for "broke" and an arresting image in its own right, evoking "perseverance and strength," in Leo's words. "I just like the phrase," he says. "I like the many connotations that it can have, as well as the specific references it does have."
Spoken like the man whose literate electric power pop is turning heads all over the place lately. Longtime Leo fans are wondering what took everybody so long to catch on. For most of the 1990s, he fronted Chisel, a Washington, D.C.-based mod-punk band that established Leo's inventive melodies, spastic guitar dynamics, compassionate humanism and occasional swooping falsetto with an audience that always should have been far bigger.
Afterward, he moved on through various bands and projects before a self-titled Ted Leo and the Pharmacists album emerged in 1998. In places, Leo's voice-and-guitar arrangements resemble those of Billy Bragg, but always with a commitment to studio experimentation. Some straightforward heavy-dub reggae cuts (Leo has always loved '70s roots and dub) and various electronic oddities round out an uneven but intriguing album.
The second Ted Leo and the Pharmacists record, The Tyranny of Distance (2001), is a more focused and more involving affair. Full-band arrangements predominate, played by an ad hoc cast of first-division indie hotshots from bands such as the Make Up, Trans Am and Tsunami. Leo's songs -- especially "Timorous Me," "Squeaky Fingers" and "You Could Die" -- are direct, affecting and catchy. On hearing his sharp melodies and bookish, observant lyrics, devotees of such songwriting giants as Elvis Costello, Paul Weller, and Difford and Tilbrook could only drool and stammer out hosannas. Tyranny evoked those classic tunesmiths in a voice all its own and promised more to come.
The next thing Leo did after recording that album was put together a lineup of full-time Pharmacists, ditching the "rotating backing band" concept that prevailed on Tyranny. "There's a lot of full instrumentation on it, but it's still really a solo record," he says of that album. "On some of the songs, I play everything on the record -- drums and bass, just everything. I don't think that it lacks in the rock department, but it still definitely feels like a solo kind of singer/songwritery record made with other people."
Thus constituted, the new Pharmacists hit the road, building a more perfect rock beast through a vigorous touring schedule. The difference is huge and obvious on Hearts of Oak. Although the playing on Tyranny was never less than accomplished, the music on the newer album is both tighter and more expansive. With a whole band contributing to the songs, the density of musical ideas is higher. Cool little riffs, fills and other tasty bits abound. "With this record," Leo says, "I was writing knowing that I was gonna be playing the songs with these people. It just naturally became a tighter record in general."
Leo's fascination with '70s rock is all over Hearts of Oak, especially on the title track. A solid, deep bass line, a double-tracked Leo vocal and a propulsive soul-rock rhythm add up to a fine Thin Lizzy homage, albeit one with a brainy punk sensibility. Leo plays with the title phrase to call attention to the still-retarded gender politics of punk: "If you think, if you think everything is cool/Can't you hear, can't you hear what the girl goes through?... Won't you stand up for the Hearts of Oak?" It's about women resisting with all the "perseverance and strength" that the title alludes to, Leo says. "People think that [gender relations in punk] have come so far. Not only have they not, but I feel like they're swinging back around."
Here's one thing that makes music geeks love this album so much: In the midst of this anti-sexist punk tune that sounds like '70s classic rock, Leo lifts a line from Bob Marley's "Small Axe": "She says no weak heart shall prosper." The collision of influences is deftly handled and perfectly pitched. Instead of hoisting great chunks of music from one obvious source after another, Leo takes a guitar sound here, half a line of lyrics there, some percussion from somewhere else and hides it all in his own idiosyncratic songs. Along with its considerable musical delights, Hearts of Oak takes record collectors on an Easter-egg hunt of influences and references that are never found exactly where you think they'll be.
"Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?" is another unexpected mélange: a salute to the egalitarian spirit of the Two-Tone ska movement set to a fierce rock backing that, again, recalls Thin Lizzy. On paper, the idea of a Two-Tone tribute complete with Specials quotes in the lyrics ("Gangsters and clowns with a stereotyped sound/It's coming like a ghost town") sounds like some crap you'd hear from a fifth-rate frat-ska revue. But Leo's verbal acuity turns the idea into something genuinely moving and fun.
It also helps that it isn't actually a ska song. Given Leo's penchant for Jamaican sounds, it could easily have wound up that way. "I actually had the music together before the lyrics came to me," he explains. "I wanted to be able to start playing it, and that's what it wound up being about. I'm kind of glad that it wasn't one of those [reggae-influenced] songs that got those lyrics."
Leo sees one common value in all the styles that have touched him over the years. "As corny as it might sound, the answer is soul," he says. "Soulful music is what affects me. You find that in not only what's called 'soul', but often to a more intense degree in things like mournful Irish airs and fast early-'80s hardcore. Whatever that element is, Curtis Mayfield is the king of it, but he doesn't own it."
On an album with such a vast range -- from the Smithslike pop drama of "I'm a Ghost" to the luminous indie soul of "Bridges, Squares" to "Building Skyscrapers in the Sky," the windblown folky fragment that opens the record -- it's exciting to hear Leo bust out a fuzzy three-chord punk number. "The Ballad of the Sin Eater" is a fictional travelogue wherein a young dissident American "longs to go rudderless" and tries to connect with average folk around the world, only to find that he can't leave behind the ugly-American image even if he wants to: "They don't need none of my armchair convictions ... you didn't think they could hate you, now, did you?"
Although the song's particulars are invented, the general thrust is not. "Obviously I've never been to Kigali, but a lot of it is real," he says. "Certainly the sentiment comes from real things. The song is, I guess, about trying to figure out what it means to be an American who dissents from the course that is always being charted for us by those in power.
"A lot of my more recent trips to Europe have been really frustrating. I'm sorry, but if I'm in a country that only 60 years ago allowed Adolf Hitler to come to power, I'm not going to be able to swallow them telling me that I live in the most racist country on the planet. The people that you want to build bridges with and make contacts with reject you as well."
"The High Party" is the only tune that makes a direct reference to the perpetual state of war that faces us now, but the whole album is suffused with a determination not to give in, not to let the darkness take over, not to start treating each other like shit just because times are hard. If he weren't too occupied with other urgent matters right now, Pete Townshend would be pleased to see such a strong affirmation of his maxim that great rock & roll spells out your problems and lets you dance all over them. Hearts of Oak is an ideal balm for our current woe -- no denial, no mystification, just a loud "yes" to life and a louder "no" to all things anti-life. And yeah, you can dance to it.