You expect punk rock to throw punches while generating fun. You expect punk rock to wax vehement while providing pleasure. Hey, you expect punk rock to examine the price of chasing that pleasure as well. Here in the aughts, however, that doesn’t always happen. But Ted Leo & the Pharmacists have been keeping the music’s complex chemistry alive. The fierce little outfit retains the wiry clout of punk forebears from the Jam to Fugazi, and after a three-week-long daily dose, I’m wondering if The Brutalist Bricks (Matador) isn’t one of 2010’s mightiest and most incisive discs.
“It certainly sounds like guys of a certain age who used to be in hardcore bands,” Leo told one journalist. “The older I get, the more I go back to primary sources in my listening. For better or for worse, I really don’t get mellower politically – it winds up leaving me sometimes to just want to play hardcore. I’m ultimately a better singer than I am a screamer.” He might be talking about gnarled beauties like “The Stick” (which alludes to the minutemen) and “Mourning In America” (which warns the masses of their malaise), a pair of tunes that make a point and slap you around big-time. He’s probably not talking about the bittersweet “Even Heroes Have To Die,” which brings a steely-eyed realism to the idea of aging in the music biz (forever on the cusp of solvency, Leo’s recently been thinking of a reduced schedule). One forlorn morning I heard that particular track as a punk parallel to Springsteen’s “Bobby Jean.”
Leo is an animated Twitter fiend (his is a wildly active space that moves from celebrating Chuck Jones to mocking John McCain) and has recently asked his followers to suggest some back-catalog tunes that they’d like to hear at upcoming shows. Who knows what they’ll get to as their feisty tour bumps its way through the Northeast, but I’d trade “Heart Problems” for Beat Happening’s “Cast a Shadow,” which the singer evidently karaoke’d at the recent Matador anniversary bash – Calvin’s romantic ode has long been one of my faves. Wonder if there’s any chance that the Rx’ers would rock some late-period Ramones – the singer has also touted the virtues of Animal Boy and Halfway To Sanity of late. Long story short, a broad array of music is forever on his mind; his recent Thanksgiving messages included hosannas for Howlin’ Wolf, Husker Du, and Horslips. And he’s a decent critic: I once had a chance to play some guessing games with him, too. Really gotta make it to one of these gigs.