Every morning, for about three weeks now, I’ve been getting in my car and cranking up “Me and Mia” for my commute to work. It’s the first and best song off Ted Leo’s new album “Shake The Sheets,” and by golly it’s the only song I think I’ll ever need ever again for my morning drive. It’s coming close to replacing coffee. There isn’t enough room in my little cockpit to jump up and down, but when Ted begins cooing the opening lines over a simple guitar strum that leads right into the Big Rock Explosion, I’m ready to leap out of my seat: "Do you believe in something beautiful? Then get up and be it!" I fear I am wearing away my steering wheel from finger-drumming. My gas pedal is taking a beating from all the toe-tapping. I even made a girl in the car ahead of me laugh at my amazing traffic sing-along skills.
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Ted Leo has that knack for kicking out indomitable anthems that have the sheen of classics and the soul of punk. After cutting his teeth on hardcore in the early ’90s with several New York/D.C. punk outfits, most notably the great mod-punk trio Chisel, Leo blazed his way back into the indie consciousness with three excellent solo power pop albums. Following his first self-titled release in 1998, his real coming-out party was 2001’s “The Tyranny of Distance”, which paired raucous Celtic-infused guitar romps with Big Star swagger. “Hearts of Oak” solidified his hero-like status as an essential songwriter, with a defiant collection of incendiary mod-inspired jams that are equal parts catchy and challenging.
On “Shake the Sheets,” Leo hones his chops to an even sharper edge. Now that the Pharmacists are back to rocking the power trio, bassist Dave Lerner and drummer Chris Wilson cut a leaner swath of Clash-style melodies behind their fearless leader. They're tipping their caps to their influences this time out, crafting a series of straight-ahead rock songs that spare the fat and spoil the listener. The start of “Little Dawn” could have been lifted straight from the Fugazi canon of rumbling rhythm and itchy guitar. There's a nice directness to the piston-pumping attack of “The Angel's Share.” “The One Who Got Us Out” even rips out a sprinty hardcore pace befitting their label, punk stalwart Lookout! Records.
Leo’s smart, politically-charged lyrics hit on everything from thoughtful self-doubt to haymaker swings against the Iraq war (“How're you going to save the world/When the world ain't ready?”). On “Heart Problems” he's sticking it to the health care industry, reeling off a list of drugs from Ampicillin to Ziprasidone. (I’ve yet to hear any other song name check Ziprasidone.) There's no doubt about his anger at the current American Way, and his skill at mixing those slings and darts into energetic anthems makes the messages even more immediate. All of it is delivered with his raw, relentless Robin Zander-ish vocal flutter that bobs and weaves like a middleweight prizefighter. “Shake the Sheets” has the potential to reinvigorate a genre, maybe even a nation, that sorely needs his infectious buoyancy.
O.K., so I kind of lied earlier. “Me and Mia” is not the only Ted Leo song I need to get through my commute. Later today, I’ll get back in my car and crank up “Walking To Do.” It’s got a cheery gospel-revival vibe, complete with an entire squad of backup singers that you just can’t help but smile along with. “If we stay on our feet/we'll make it in our own time/I know the road has got some steep climbs/I believe we'll be fine.” It's a fine way to get me home, and a hopeful coda to a powerful record.
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