Music Reviews
Brutalist Bricks

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists Brutalist Bricks

(Matador) Buy it from Insound Rating - 5/10

Ted Leo's politics are starting to clash with his music. I felt the pangs of heartache last time around, when Living with the Living came out and no songs stood out for me. On the eve of a major political overhaul, Leo lost himself in the shuffle and released a disjointed album of frantic ideology. I hoped that, with the dust settling, his new effort would be more cohesive. I was hungry for a Hearts of Oak redux, and I was disappointed. See, the thing about Ted Leo is that he doesn't do messy very well. What was so incredible about Hearts of Oak, and even Shake the Sheets, to a lesser extent, was the the crispness, the pitch-perfect, human metronome quality of it all. The powerful drumming and infectious bass lines served as an ideal canvas for Leo's impossibly gorgeous vibrato and technically brilliant guitar solos.

Ultimately, what is so anticlimactic about Brutalist Bricks is how much it obscures Leo's greatest asset -- his voice. I could forgive the sloppiness if it didn't come at such a high price. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the best track is the first one; the record grabs with The Mighty Sparrow, a catchy and exciting reminder of the Pharmacists' former glory, and slowly dashes every hope from then on out. Ativan Eyes, the third track, still retains a bit of the initial verve, but it's here that I realized Leo got a little lazy with his lyrics. Used to be he didn't need to mention explicitly his neo-Marxist views ("The means of production are now in the hands of the workers"? Really?) to get his point across. But this particular number is a great example of the kind of nonsense I'm willing to put with, so long as the vocals are good -- and, in this instance, they are quite good.

Sadly, the magic doesn't last long. Even Heroes Have to Die is a perfectly poppy track that passes along with its predecessor (great vocals, terrible lyrics -- sensing a theme?). But overall, there never seems to be a right mix of words and music; we have to settle trading one for the other from song to song. Woke Up Near Chelsea has an absolutely incredible powerhouse chorus, but the overbearing lyrics are cringe-worthy: "Well, we all got a job to do/well, we all hate God/well, we all got a job to do/we're gonna do it together." When the lyrics do manage to pick up (Bottled in Cork sports some clever turns: "Me I'm just a loner/in a world full of kids/egos and ids"), the music is repetitive and dull. The absolute disasters are attempts at pure hardcore punk, like The Stick and Where Was My Brain? They're a wobbly nod to the Sex Pistols when it should have gone to the Pogues, like it normally does. Aside from the slight vocal interest of Tuberculoids Arrive in Hop, a slower track that sounds like Robert Plant overlaid with crickets, and maybe One Polaroid a Day, a breathy and mercifully low-fi head-bobber, the album just doesn't have anything memorable to offer.

It's hard to fault Leo too much. When the message isn't getting through to enough people, the natural instinct is to say it louder. So Bush is gone, but we're still waiting for all that change we were promised. Health care reform is a joke, the economy isn't picking up and nobody seems to be doing anything about it -- it's a lot to scream about. But while a good dose of outrage generally tends to bolster creativity, it seems to have stifled Ted Leo. “The older I get, the more I go back to primary sources in my listening," he told Rolling Stone back in December.  "For better or for worse, I really don’t get mellower politically — it winds up leaving me sometimes to just want to play hardcore."  But even he admits that he's "ultimately a better singer than I am a screamer.”  If he'd played up his vocals over his vitriol, Brutalist Bricks could have been a much better album. Loud and messy may be the hallmarks of hardcore, but showcasing his talents would have made a bigger impact, both musically and politically.