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Ted Leo and The Pharmacists bring polemics and pop hooks to Diesel

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"What the stun guns say": Ted Leo - PHOTO: COURTESY SHAWN BRACKBILL
  • Photo: Courtesy Shawn Brackbill
  • "What the stun guns say": Ted Leo

Ever since punk rock became largely a vehicle to move T-shirts, the genre's suffered noticeably from a lack of ballast. Along with occasional tourmates Against Me!, Ted Leo's one of a handful of punk-rock polemicists working hard to reverse that tide without sacrificing vocal melody or hooks.

In the late 1980s, Leo fronted New York hardcore acts Citizen Arrest and Animal Crackers. Now almost a decade into his solo career, he's established himself as one of the catchiest, keen-witted rockers in the underground, blending the fervor of The Clash with ringing, crashing post-punk guitars and a mod melodicism that's a direct descendent of The Jam. But don't dare call him an indie rocker -- he's still punk at heart.

Leo flaked on a scheduled interview for this story, but when I interviewed him for Atlanta's Creative Loafing in 2005, he told me, "There's a fine line between being too serious or being too ironic, or not. You have to have a sense of humor, which I think is still very much a part of punk rock, but a sense of humor about rather serious things, whereas indie rock is often just a cottage industry for rock writ large on the marquee."

Leo has just released a four-song digital EP, Rapid Response, quickly recorded in the wake of the preventive detention and other oppressive police activity at this year's Republican National Convention -- a subject that received momentary mainstream attention before being drowned out by the media's obsession with Sarah Palin. The EP features the slinky "Paranoia (Never Enough)," sounding like Minor Threat dressed as the New York Dolls, with Leo singing, "It's easy to hear what the stun guns say ... [when] journalists' questions are censored with a can of mace, and commercial interests keep the truth off your TV."

Proceeds from the release go to syndicated radio and TV news show Democracy Now! The show's host, Amy Goodman, and two producers were hurt and jailed while covering the protests. "It's just a way for us to contribute something real to the lives of real human beings, and show our material support for those whose actions and thoughts we value in this ideological struggle," Leo writes in the EP's liner notes.

While an interesting artifact, Rapid Response is simply a taste compared to Living With the Living, his latest full-length album, released in 2007. On the album, Leo wanders felicitously from his standard bracing attack, from the jangling, country-tinged rocker "The Sons of Cain" to the wistful Celtic folk rock "A Bottle of Buckie," from the reggaefied "The Unwanted Things" to the Undertones-ish mod-pop of "Army Bound."

Unlike 2003's critical success Hearts of Oak and 2004's career boost Shake the Sheets, the songs on Living With the Living were accumulated slowly over time, as Leo indulged his many musical interests. Part of the time was spent working on a score for a play about CIA activities in Guatemala during the 1950s; the play went unproduced, but yielded a fiery punk indictment of American imperialism, the song "Bomb. Repeat. Bomb." Unlike the usual process, in which Leo would try to cram every one of his influences into each song, he took time to indulge the different styles, producing perhaps his finest album, and one that showcases the breadth of his vision -- which doesn't preclude a little preachiness.

"I try to avoid didacticism as a rule but I don't avoid it entirely," Leo said. "Because sometimes nothing feels as right -- to either hear or sing -- as a good ole preachy 'Us and Them' kind of song. I've done it in the past. Sometimes you just need to kick it like that."

 

Ted Leo and The Pharmacists, with Titus Adronicus. 6 p.m. (doors open) Wed., Nov. 5. Diesel, 1601 E. Carson St., South Side. $12 ($14 day of show). All ages. 412-431-8800 or www.dieselpgh.com

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