By Reed Fischer
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By Loren Green
Folk artists of the '60s taught us that it doesn't take a major-label contract to influence the public at large. All you need is charisma to back up your convictions, and New Jersey-based songwriter Ted Leo has it in spades. Having just shed the hardcore chops he garnered with Citizen's Arrest in favor of the poppier sound he developed with Chisel, Leo hasn't abandoned social causes: He still sings about police brutality (on 2001's The Tyranny of Distance) and the ramifications of war (check his soulful cover of Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross" on the American Veterans of the Vietnam War benefit album Don't Know When I'll Be Back Again). Along with fellow left-of-the-dial peers such as Sleater-Kinney, Leo shares insights about life after 9/11 that are proactive without sounding patronizing. He's more intent on stimulating the brain than the tear ducts.
Hearts of Oak, Leo's third full-length recorded with his backing band Pharmacists, combines smart political commentary with an accessible pop sensibility. The jangle of "I'm a Ghost" quickly alternates between a friendly tap on the shoulder and a shove from the back: Even a few innocuous oh ohs can't detract from Leo's slogan-ready lyrics. "You can't make a sound from six feet underground," he argues, encouraging listeners to write their own polemics before their time on earth is up. On "The High Party," a chirpy organ-laced punk number, Leo remembers September 11 (also his birthday) by questioning the government's resistance to debate over its actions: "If there's another war/Another shitty war to fight for Babylon/Then it's the perfect storm in a tea cup/But you must drink it down." Later, over the fuzzy guitar and frisky high hat of "The Ballad of the Sin Eater," he notes that the rest of the world knows America's guilt: "You didn't think they could hate you, now did you?"
Of course, even with his sharp tongue, the real centerpiece here is Leo's voice, too complex to evoke in a few fragmented sentences. Alternately faltering and keeping a bass-steady pace over a barrel of dub rhythm, it calls you to action. Whether that means you're more likely to attend protests or simply shake your ass is up to you.
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