Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – The Tyranny of Distance

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
The Tyranny of Distance

I’m really beginning to think that this whole retro movement is getting overblown. Things are just getting out of hand. You have bands like Moods for Moderns, a bunch of indie suburban kids claiming that they wouldn’t record with an instrument made after 1978. This is a sort of elitism reserved for either very, very rich collectors, or very, very, renowned recording artists, of which Moods for Moderns are neither (the band has, in recent months, disbanded). And although I have few complaints about the music Moods for Moderns came up with, they’re an exception, unfortunately, rather than the rule. Most of these bands (please see my review of Rick Bain and the Genius Position) are prissy rock revivalists who write simple melodies with even simpler lyrics. The worst part is that these bands advertise this return-to-stoopid as some sort of triumph. It’s a bit ironic then, that the year’s best retro-rock comes by way of a band who seems ignore this aspect of their music. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists go about retro rock the right way – they write the songs. This may seem like such a simple solution, but you’d be surprised. Rather than simply playing the instruments or wearing the clothes, Ted Leo and company have approached classic rock the hard way – they write classic songs. So it’s not that they ignore their classic rock leanings. It’s just that without boasting about their old instruments or jackets, many may not even realize the roots of this band. On their first full-length album, they play tribute to everyone from The Who to Tom Petty without blinking.
The basic formula is as follows: hooks, hooks, and more hooks. These songs are so sing-ably sweet they could make a hardcore fan melt. Ted Leo’s excellent guitar playing and his tireless falsetto back up the hooks. He toys with everything from bluesy leads (“Timorous Me”) to Townshend-inspired punk froth (“Parallel or Together”). Meanwhile, his band, the Pharmacists, provide the rock-steady rhythms and restrained flair that flushes out the songs. But Ted Leo’s the key here.
On “The Great Communicator,” Leo spits out rapid-fire lyrics and has such a candycane taste in his voice that he can pull off lines like “but your ‘esses’ look like ‘effes’ to me, and we been Ebonic since we been thirteen.” This may look stupid, but you’ll be singing a different tune when you hear them sung. “Biomusicology” opens the album with chiming chords and a unforgettable melody, the best remedy for which is probably any other song on this disc. “Stove by a Whale” is the disc’s most shameless rip, but that doesn’t stop it from being better than most of the songs on Cheap Trick’s impeccable first album. “Timorous Me” really does sound like the best song John Mellencamp never wrote, and if you’re not into that sort of thing, believe me, you will be. The rest of the songs on the album are just as good – chock-full of wizard guitars, powerful rhythms, and the sweetest melodies pressed to wax this year.
This band spent the better part of the last few months opening for the Dismemberment Plan, one of the few bands on earth that could successfully follow Ted Leo’s songs on a stage. I missed that show, and now I’m kicking myself in the ass. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are the real deal. These are songwriters in the classic rock vein who come off like anthemic underground wunderkinds. If you have a soul, or at least a sense of melody, you will love this album. I simply can’t remember the last time I heard songs this good.