Ted Leo/Pharmacists: The Tyranny of Distance

Ted Leo/Pharmacists
The Tyranny of Distance
Lookout Records


ROCK 'N' ROLL'S all-too-passive voice jumped an octave last year when two New Jersey boys penned songs that rallied against police brutality. One was Bruce Springsteen, whose "American Skin (41 Shots)" drew criticism from New York police groups because of its denouncement of Amadou Diallo's murder. The other--released just under the police radar and even further under the mainstream music radar--was Ted Leo's "Abner Louima v. Gov. Pete Wilson," from his Treble in Trouble EP. Like Springsteen's, Leo's writing is poignant without being dogmatic: He simply fashioned his social commentary into cathartic rock 'n' roll.

And the affect is only heightened on Leo's latest, The Tyranny of Distance. The album opener, "Biomusicology," is all revelation, as Leo exclaims, in his born-to-sing-rock-and-roll-voice (think John Lennon or Cheap Trick's Robin Zander), "Come to find that loving is labor, labor's life and life's forever," until the song ends with a stunning climax akin to the slide-guitar finale in "Layla." Elsewhere, he reads the back pages of the Byrds on the lovely, 12-string-aided, "Under the Hedge"; questions nostalgia on "Timorous Me," with its handclaps and ebullient vocals; and rails against the "problems that our governments and our accents and our parents have us swimmin' in" on the crunching "Stove by a Whale."

Leo's work--from his stint as frontman for the mid-Nineties power trio Chisel through his efforts with the short-lived, punkier Sin Eaters, and now, ostensibly, as a solo artist (the "Pharmacists" in question are a revolving cast of support musicians)--has often been compared to that of Paul Weller or Elvis Costello. But while there is some truth to these comparisons, his music is actually closer to that of the Boss. Like Springsteen's masterworks, The River and Darkness at the Edge of Town, Tyranny chronicles ordinary people struggling with institutional problems (health care, racism, language, police) as well as crafting trenchant, honest love songs. Leo's music seems rooted in its historical grounding while somehow not sounding dated. And Tyranny is truly a classic rock record made contemporary.

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