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“Fuck and Run” – Liz Phair (w/ Ted Leo)
Live at the Matador at 21 festival in Las Vegas, October 3, 2010

To transition from an incredible week of posts dedicated to Liz Phair, here is her performance of “Fuck and Run” from the Matador at 21 anniversary festival this past fall. Ted Leo, this coming week’s subject, joins in on tambourine and backing vocals about a minute in. (Ted Leo also covered the song that weekend as part of a “battle of the bands” with Fucked Up)

I’ll introduce myself later, so for now I share this in tribute to the amazing run of Liz Phair posts Isabel wrote this week. She certainly set the bar high!

All the Little Pieces of a Song: A Week with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists

In the internet age, new things attract the most attention, and the rush to find, tout, or tear down the “next big thing” becomes a mad dash for page views and word counts. Of course it’s exciting to digest something entirely new, and it might be better than dissecting the same thing ad nauseam. However, perfecting one’s craft deserves our attention just as much as someone expanding his or her horizons. Personally, I can think of few things I’d rather aspire to be than “consistently brilliant.”

So in the past decade worth of trends and buzz, “consistent” bands and songwriters sometimes fall through the cracks. This is what makes Ted Leo and the Pharmacists so exceptional. The five* Pharmacists records over the last decade generally work within a similar sonic palette. Sure, Ted Leo’s songs move in different directions, reflecting both a passionate love for many styles and a deep knowledge of rock history, yet it’s fair to say that someone who likes one Ted Leo and the Pharmacists record will probably enjoy all of them. However, each record meets similar critical praise and new fans. That’s not to say they are interchangeable – far from it. Rather, there are expectations when seeing a record with the Ted Leo and the Pharmacists name on it, knowing that the sound coming out of your music device of choice will meet the same high standards laid out in the previous albums.

I’m approaching this week as an exploration of the past decade of Ted Leo’s career starting with last year’s The Brutalist Bricks and working backward to 2001’s The Tyranny of Distance. Each of these five records will have its own day complete with videos and live performances, at least one cover song (which Leo does frequently and exceptionally, as you may expect), a song from each record, and whatever miscellanea I can pass on. I’m approaching the week with three objectives. For those of you who may not know Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, I offer a broad introduction to each record and Leo’s music in general. For those of you who are already fans (and, selfishly, for myself), I hope to better articulate what makes these records consistently excellent. Most importantly, this week is a celebration of one of my favorite songwriters and performers and hopefully a way to introduce some new fans to some great songs.

That being said, if you have Ted Leo stories to share, I’d love to hear them. You can contact me on Twitter @somesongs or send me an email (somesongsconsidered at gmail-dot-com). At the end of the week, I’d love to put all of these stories together into a final “fan tribute” post.

*There are actually six records with the Ted Leo and the Pharmacists name – the five records featured this week and 1999’s tej leo(?), Rx / pharmacists. However, with only five days to work with, and the tej leo LP recorded almost entirely by Leo himself, I made the choice to leave off the tej leo LP and the “Treble in Trouble” EP, both of which have great songs and deserve a listen.

The Brutalist Bricks (available from Matador Records Online Store)The first Ted Leo and the Pharmacists record on Matador Records, The Brutalist Bricks met generally positive reviews upon its release in March 2010. Many of these songs entered the band’s set lists as early as 2008, and a couple years of road testing particularly served the album’s taut and frenzied songs well. It’s these songs in particular that led critics to declare it as a sort of “return to form” when compared with 2007’s sprawling (yet misunderstood, in my opinion) Living with the Living. Here’s a sample of some critical reactions to the album, but as always trust your own ears and decide for yourself. 
The Onion A.V. Club’s Noel Murray viewed the similarities with previous TL/Rx albums as a positive sign, noting that “The Brutalist Bricks is just as much a stirring, personal response to the times as the early Pharmacists albums. There’s a back-to-basics, making-sense-of-the-world vibe about the record, and Leo’s blend of the personal and political is often touching, as on the meaty “Even Heroes Have To Die,” the poppy “Bottled In Cork,” and the soaring “Ativan Eyes.”
For Allmusic.com, Tim Sendra praises Leo’s songwriting and the Pharmacists’ musical chops. “It helps, too, that The Brutalist Bricks is loaded with very sticky melodies and hooks; Leo’s gift for singalong choruses and soaring vocal lines hasn’t deserted him here. The production is first-rate, too; the guitars cut through the air like shards of glass, the rhythm section sounds deep and rich, and there are enough little sonic touches (handclaps, organ, sirens, sound effects) to keep things interesting.”
Tom Scharpling, “Famous Television Writer and Host [of The Best Show on WFMU]” and director of the “Bottled in Cork” video, offers specific praise for the Pharmacists as well. “But enough about Ted - how about the Pharmacists? Could they be more in the pocket? (No!) Chris Wilson’s drumming has never sounded better. Marty Key holds down the Thud Stick (That’s right, the Thud Stick. You might know it as a bass guitar) it owes him money. And James Canty is Mr. Everything, taking the songs to another level with his whipsmart guitar and keyboardings. Ted is the anchor, but the Pharmacists are the reason the whole thing crushes like it does.”
On the other side, Justin Cober-Lake for Popmatters.com wanted more of this most recent album. “[W]hile Leo is ever likable and, even here, enjoyable, it takes more than just the right sentiments to put a routine album into an entirely different category. It’s a shame that an artist that’s had so much to say seems to be stuck for the moment.”
Coming up later today: The album’s two music videos, Ted Leo playing one of his peers’ best songs, and a song about putting down your cell phone and enjoying the groove. High-res

The Brutalist Bricks (available from Matador Records Online Store)

The first Ted Leo and the Pharmacists record on Matador Records, The Brutalist Bricks met generally positive reviews upon its release in March 2010. Many of these songs entered the band’s set lists as early as 2008, and a couple years of road testing particularly served the album’s taut and frenzied songs well. It’s these songs in particular that led critics to declare it as a sort of “return to form” when compared with 2007’s sprawling (yet misunderstood, in my opinion) Living with the Living. Here’s a sample of some critical reactions to the album, but as always trust your own ears and decide for yourself.

Coming up later today: The album’s two music videos, Ted Leo playing one of his peers’ best songs, and a song about putting down your cell phone and enjoying the groove.

“The Mighty Sparrow” – Ted Leo and the Pharmacists (Directed by Jack Ferry)

“The Mighty Sparrow” is the first of two videos (so far, at least) from The Brutalist Bricks. If my memory serves me correctly, the song dates back at least to the live shows the Pharmacists played opening for Pearl Jam in 2008 (and perhaps earlier). Rather than save its catchiest line for the chorus, Leo leads with the earworm in the first line and slightly varies it further along in the song. It’s this melodic phrase, sung passionately by Leo in his upper register, that opens the album, setting the tone for the following songs.

The video serves the song’s quick tempo and bright melody well, particularly with the series of quick cuts from one member of the band to another. The exploding balloons, flying paper, and camera placement also present the chaos implied in the opening line without the violence a literal representation might suggest.

(A tidbit I found while looking up lyrics: Might Sparrow is the stage name of Slinger Francisco, the “Calypso King of the World” and a man who Wikipedia describes as having “witty, ironic, and ribald” lyrics and “frequently comment[ing] on social and political issues in his songs.” I don’t know if he’s the inspiration for the song (I don’t know him well enough to point toward any specific lines), but based on that description it’s possible that Ted Leo knows his music.)

“Bottled in Cork” – Ted Leo and the Pharmacists (Directed by Tom Scharpling)

I won’t recap what happens in the “Bottled in Cork” video because it’s an absolute joy to watch. I will strongly recommend that you watch the video at least once either above or on Funny or Die. If you need any more coaxing, know that the video features cameos from comedians Paul F. Tompkins, Julie Klausner, and John Hodgman (among others) and a scene-stealing performance from Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus in one of the audience shots.

If you’ve seen it, you should see it again. While writing this post, I watched the video for the first time in a while, and these are some of the things I noticed now that I hadn’t earlier (and I’m certain I’m still missing things).

  • At the beginning and end of the video, Ted Leo wears the same denim jacket he wears in a lot of the promo pictures for 2003’s Hearts of Oak.
  • I’m pretty sure The Daily Show’s Wyatt Cenac is next to John Hodgman in the audience. I also noticed WFMU personalities Terre T and AP Mike in the crowd (Tom Scharpling of The Best Show on WFMU fame wrote and directed the video, but more on the Best Show – Ted Leo connection later today)
  • Bassist Marty “Violence” Key wears a Citizens Arrest shirt while taking a bow at the end. Citizens Arrest is one of Ted Leo’s pre-Pharmacists bands (who recently reunited, put out a digital EP, and played the Maryland Death Fest this past weekend).

As for the song, “Bottled in Cork” is the latest of Ted Leo’s travel songs (which most notably includes “The Ballad of the Sin Eater” from Hearts of Oak and, to a lesser degree, “La Costa Brava” on Living with the Living and “Counting Down the Hours” on Shake the Sheets). The other songs, particularly “…Sin Eater,” feel angry or frustrated while traveling, and this narrator experiences moments of frustration as well, but it’s outwardly directed toward failed peacekeeping missions and congressional pork. Here, the narrator’s life feels far more upbeat, particularly in the two lines repeated in the song. The first, “a little good will goes a mighty long way,” certainly fits its songwriter’s personality. The second, “tell the bartender / I think I’m falling in love,” becomes an ebullient refrain sung in a round the way an entire bar might sing along to something in celebration. It’s a joyous moment, and one worthy of a few extra bars before the song’s conclusion. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re singing along by the very end too – I certainly am!

Track

Up in the Dark

Artist

Ted Leo

Album

The Best Show on WFMU

perpetua:

Ted Leo performs the New Pornographers’ “Up in the Dark” on this Tuesday’s special marathon episode of the Best Show on WFMU. If you haven’t pledged to WFMU yet, please do! The drive will run through this weekend.

The Best Show on WFMU is a three-hour program that airs Tuesday nights on New Jersey free-form radio station WFMU (as well as the station’s website, as well as the Best Show’s podcast later in the week). Best Show host Tom Scharpling has numerous writing credits (most notably his stint as writer and executive producer on Monk, but also The Onion, Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job, and most recently as TV recapper for New York Magazine’s Vulture blog) and the show revolves around his diverse interests. An episode generally finds Scharpling spinning records, talking with guests and callers, and creating absurd, long-form improvisational bits with comedy partner Jon Wurster (also known for playing drums with Superchunk and The Mountain Goats, among others). Like many shows with passionate fanbases, The Best Show comes rife with its own inside jokes, lingo, and devoted fans (ranging from WFMU listeners to famous comedians) who call themselves “The Friends of Tom.”

This year, during the station’s pledge drive, Ted Leo came on The Best Show and performed a handful of his songs and cover songs, including The New Pornographers’ “Up in the Dark.” Later on in the show, Carl Newman returned the favor by covering Leo’s “Bottled in Cork,” with Ted Leo helping out on the guitar solo. It was a nice moment of mutual fandom in the name of charity (WFMU, a non-profit public station, raised close to $100,000 during Scharpling’s two pledge shows alone), and if these two bands ever did a split single covering each others’ songs, my head might explode.

(One last note: Tom Scharpling directed videos for both Ted Leo and The New Pornographers in the past year. The New Pornographers’ “Moves” in particular features many famous Friends of Tom (including Ted Leo in a wig and a dress). The Best Show family sticks together!)

“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” – Ted Leo and the Pharmacists live on The Onion A.V. Club’s “Undercover.”

On several occasions, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists played live karaoke, inviting fans up to sing from an impressively broad catalog of songs (from Fugazi to The Outfield’s “Your Love,” for instance). I’ve never been to one of these shows, but the videos from these nights make it look like a blast. Additionally, it’s an impressive display of the Pharmacists’ range and musical knowledge. Knowing all of these songs is one thing, but playing them as well as they do is an entirely different feat.

Their cover of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” stays faithful to the original for the most part. Two things stand out to me when I hear this – first, the Pharmacists’ version brings out the guitar play in the original that gets overlooked. While Ted Leo’s guitar is a little rougher than the original version’s guitar lines, he plays it with the same energy and melodic sensibilities that I love in the original. However, much of the song’s feel comes from the expert drumming. Chris Wilson’s groove adds a little rhythmic embellishment without sacrificing the solid pocket that locks the song into its groove. His playing sits right on the edge of the beat and pushes the band forward without rushing the tempo. It’s an understated part of the song, but an important reason why it feels so energetic.

Track

One Polaroid A Day

Artist

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists

Album

The Brutalist Bricks

“One Polaroid a Day” – Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
(Words/music: Ted Leo, available on The Brutalist Bricks, Matador Records 2010)

It’s hard to listen to this song and not think about all of the people who spend entire rock shows snapping pictures on their cell phones. The closing couplet, “you kill the moment when you cling / lay down your ownership and sing” fits that interpretation perfectly. Still, a few other details point the song toward something more general and universal. Specifically, the phrase “discipline to let things play” stands out, as the act of letting something go, be it a moment passing without record or simply moving on without dwelling, takes a considerable amount of discipline. After all, “moving on” doesn’t mean moving for a while only to stop and return. This phrase, along with the “document decay” line near the song’s beginning, suggest that the song tackles more than putting one’s camera phone away and enjoying a band. Instead, it’s the struggle of letting things pass, whether it means capturing it for memories later or accepting circumstances beyond one’s control.

“Discipline” also fits the song’s arrangement as well. Appropriately, the song doesn’t rush its moment, instead trading the breakneck pace of other Brutalist Bricks songs and instead establishes a tight mid-tempo groove supported with organ and handclaps. Even Leo’s voice feels restrained as he drops an octave from his normal singing voice. I can’t think of any other times Leo sings in this register (and please correct me if I’m wrong), so it’s hard not to look at it as a deliberate choice even if he sings it in his “normal” singing voice when performing the song live. Perhaps it’s his way of ceding control of the song from his vocals to the instrumentation and letting his words seep in almost as an afterthought.

(There’s a remix of the song featuring The Spinanes’ Rebecca Gates that came out on Spanish label La Castanya’s vinyl pressing of the album. If you can point me toward that, I would be incredibly grateful!)

More on Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: Allmusic | Amazon MP3 | Emusic | Last.fm