Tuesday, October 21, 2008

You Can Get More Than Drugs & Condoms From These Pharmacists

Ted Leo & The Pharmacists
Living With The Living

by Corey Apar
When it comes to consistency, Ted Leo is the man. When it comes to writing songs bristling with nervy energy and sincere conviction that inspire, question, and reflect, there are only a few of his peers that can really measure up. Living with the Living marks full-length number five for Leo and his crew of Pharmacists, and it's another literate and stirring collection of songs built around his sweetly elastic voice and tightly wound guitars. On personal and human levels, he hits it all — anger, happiness, frustration, love, uncertainty, hope, sadness, rebellion — in songs that burst with passion and a true zest for being alive; cuts like the bright immediacy of "The Sons of Cain" and the tender Irish-flavored frolic of "A Bottle of Buckie" find Leo in top form and easily put a smile on one's face. Bitter political assertions surface like usual, yet nothing in Leo's career thus far hits quite as hard as the acerbically blunt rant of "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb." Brazen, in-your-face and stretched to the seams with seething defiance, Leo basically barks a giant fuck you to the government. It's all upfront danger and burning emotion when he spits, "Oh sure, you could mobilize a million troops...but then people start to ask questions/So when you drop in out of the white clouds in a blue sky/Don't worry about them having to see the whites of your blue eyes." The anxious pace and shout-singing make the song a definite standout, and though there are other tracks present to further vary things a bit — the dub-inflected "The Unwanted Things," the slow-paced poignancy of "The Toro and the Toreador" — the one fault (if you can find one at all with him) is that Leo has basically been writing the same album for the last few years. All excellent albums with stellar songs, but really, there's not much sonically to separate his records (or his pretty straightforward, by-now almost formulaic songs) out from one another. Plenty of Living with the Living measures up with his best, so it's really hard to knock such a likable guy who obviously knows his strengths and can consistently execute great songs — sentimental and motivating, socially conscious and challenging, Leo hardly falters. Yet although his mixture of politics, heart and intelligence with taut guitars and a sweet falsetto will presumably be engaging forever (and Leo hits much more than he ever misses), it's getting hard to ignore that little voice inside that wants something more from him. Something a bit different that stretches his songwriting further and shows that he's really trying to push himself. There's no denying his talent, and five winning albums is still a hell of a streak. But Ted, we know you've got more in you.

1 Fourth World War
2 The Songs of Cain
3 Army Bound
4 Who Do You Love?
5 Colleen
6 A Bottle of Buckie
7 Bomb. Repeat. Bomb.
8 La Costa Brava
9 Annunciation Day/Born on Christmas Day
10 The Unwanted Things
11 The Lost Brigade
12 The World Stops Turning
13 Some Beginner's Mind
14 The Toro and the Toreador
15 C.I.A.