Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – Hearts of Oak

Ted Leo has been doing this for a while now. In the 1980s, he was engrained in the punk and hardcore scene, fronting a band known as Citizens Arrest. In 1990, he founded the mod-punk band Chisel, which went on to build a strong underground following and release a string of three albums. After Chisel’s demise in 1997, Leo began playing solo but also toyed with some other projects, such as playing guitar with the Spinanes, fronting the short-lived Sin Eaters, and toying around with the Secret Stars. His first solo effort saw the light of day in 1998, followed by a handful of seven-inches and EPs. It all lead to the commercial and critical success of 2001’s The Tyranny of Distance, which quickly earned Leo comparisons to the likes of Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello, Paul Weller, and others. Battling the high expectations that were given birth to by such a successful effort, Leo and his band, the Pharmacists, now return with Hearts of Oak.
Leo and company have an interesting recipe brewing here. There are hints of everything from vintage pop, to soul, to mod-punk, to folk, and though those are some unique ingredients, they fit together like chunks of a wonderfully designed puzzle in this case. “Building Skyscrapers in the Basement” is an oddly dirge-like opener, but then the peppy guitar kicks in and “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” will have you shaking your ass all over the dance floor. That is, if you happen to have a dance floor anywhere in the general vicinity.
The throbbing bassline and shaking percussion of “I’m a Ghost” has a similar effect, and just try sitting still through “The High Party” or “Hearts of Oak,” which blend hints of everything from vintage acts like the Clash to modern ones like the Dismemberment Plan, and are two obvious favorites. “The Ballad of the Sin Eater” shows Leo digging up his old-school punk roots to show that they are still alive and well, while the slower and more soulful “Dead Voices” follows quite nicely. I don’t want to bore you to tears with a song-by-song rundown of the entire album, so let’s just say that if you like the sound of the first half of the album, the second half will be equally pleasing.
Leo’s voice is full of urgency and soul, whether he is singing sickeningly sweet pop songs or angst-ridden punk numbers. He can jump from stories of love to political rants with little problem, and he has one of those voices that sounds good even when it’s reaching for high notes that seem a little beyond his grasp. The Pharmacists are equally enjoyable, with a style that is technically tight and precise but just rough enough around the edges to compliment the overall vibe perfectly. All in all, it makes for an excellent album, perhaps not eclipsing the band’s previous work, but at least firmly holding its ground.