New Jersey native Ted Leo, who learned his trade in the East Coast hardcore scene of the late ’80s, has been toiling as an indie idol in the Washington D.C. underground for more than a decade, first fronting Chisel, which prefigured the current mod-punk revival, and then the Sin Eaters, a power-pop band that made a fine impression on everyone who heard them except, apparently, record-company people. The band broke up in 1997 without a recorded legacy.
In 1999, Leo formed The Pharmacists and started developing a retro sound that incorporated the grand melodic sense of Irish rock bands like Thin Lizzy, the Boomtown Rats and Dexys Midnight Runners into his Joe Jackson-like power-pop compositions. Verbose and high-spirited, Leo comes off initially as the guy who knows everything and makes sure you know it, too. His punk prose poems are stuffed with literary references, circuitous logic and entire manifestos about Art and Life. It’s not that he’s well-read and wants to show off, but rather that one good thought deserves another and another and another, until the song becomes a monument to pure meaning. Leo bypasses the narratives favored by his Irish heroes and goes straight to the philosophical heart of the matter.
Leo’s music is as exhausting as his ideas, and on his new album, “Hearts of Oak,” he and The Pharmacists barrel through 13 songs on a runaway train of thought. The record’s centerpiece, “The Ballad of the Sin Eater,” is a Dylan-esque tour of the landscape of intolerance and cultural imperialism that leaves the traveler “beaten and bloodied.” The chorus of this fierce, manic song — “You didn’t think they could hate you, now did you?” — is as indelible as “London Calling.” But it’s all the more amazing when you realize it’s only drums, bass and Leo’s voice, which has enough melodic force and emotional conviction to make you forget that he isn’t playing guitar. Sometimes, talent and belief is all you really need.
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