Perfect Rx

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists find that just a spoonful of anger helps the medicine go down.

Epiphanies are like assholes: Everyone has one, most stink and not even surgery can purge them.

Consider as a case in point the 33-year-old, New Jersey-bred punk songwriter Ted Leo. The first record he ever owned was "It Never Rains in Southern California," by Albert Hammond. His first concert, at age ten, was Adam and the Ants. And his penchant for wide-eyed revelation didn't wane as the cynicism of adulthood took over; he's still prone to the occasional, out-of-the blue, life-throttling musical epiphany. Really. Just ask him.

"Last week I came to the huge realization that I truly, truly love house music," he confesses, speaking of the electronic, R&B-derived, diva-ridden subgenre -- you know, the kind of sequined, turd-slick dance stuff you hear bleating out of chintzy LoDo clubs and bad car commercials. "I was watching late-night TV, and you know how they always have those ads for 'Summer Jams' compilations that you can order through the mail? There was this one called Techno 2003 or something like that. So I'm sitting there listening to these ten-second snippets of song after song, and even though every beat was the same, there were all these cool minor-chord progressions and somebody doing some soaring vocal lines with actual verses and choruses.

Mod professor: Ted Leo wants to make real music.
Mod professor: Ted Leo wants to make real music.


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"And then it hit me," he sums up in wonderment. "They were like real songs. And I liked every one of them. It just made me realize that, to be good songwriting, stuff doesn't have to be like Nick Drake or Ryan Adams."

When it comes to real songs, Leo knows of what he speaks. After a spell in the late '80s fronting the hardcore outfit Citizens Arrest, he formed Chisel, a band that was as deft at songwriting as it was at jogging out of step with the sounds of the time. Rather than reveling in the rampant Beach Boys worship, post-Pavement sloppiness and emo insipidness that dominated the underground indie scene of the mid-'90s, Chisel was a sharp shock of pure mod pop. On the group's two proper full-lengths, 1995's 8 A.M. All Day and 1997's Set You Free, Leo was a conduit for every great act of the late '70s and early '80s that was just a little too clever and a little too ectomorphic to play true punk rock. Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello, Squeeze and, especially, the Jam all served as templates for Chisel's smart, shard-laden guitars and dizzying twists of lyrics and melody, which retained all the wrecked velocity and harrowing passion of his punk heroes Minor Threat and Bad Brains. And as a graduate of Notre Dame University with a degree in literature and a minor in philosophy, Leo was just as likely to spout poetry or sing in French as he was to hack up a lung in anger on stage.

"It happens that I write some songs as a specific, rageful reaction against something, but those aren't the most common songs that I write," Leo says. "More often than not, the actual writing of the song will come a little bit after my indignation has simmered down. They wind up being more of an exploration of my feelings on a subject as opposed to a straight reaction. But anger is still a part of it, without a doubt, definitely."

A prime specimen of Leo's vast reservoir of piss and vinegar is "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?" A cut from last year's Hearts of Oak (his second album with the Pharmacists, a revolving ensemble that usually includes Dorien Garry on keys, Dave Lerner on bass and Chris Wilson on drums), the song stomps through the door with a broken-bottled hook and the lines "It's times like these when a neck looks for a knife/A wrist for a razor/A heart is longing for bullets." Leo's riff somehow seamlessly melds the sounds of both Thin Lizzy and Stiff Little Fingers -- two bands that, besides being from Ireland in the 1970s, previously had about as much in common as Rod Stewart and the Sex Pistols. After railing against the omnipresent pressures and tensions of racism, Leo breaks down the beat and starts chanting, as if in prayer, the hallowed names of Jerry, Terry, Lynval and Rhoda. Yeah, that's right: In the year 2003, when ska is about the uncoolest thing imaginable this side of Air Supply, here is a man paying tribute to the songwriting genius of the Specials, Selecter and the whole Two-Tone ska era. Leo's shoutouts verge on apotheosis, a tribute as transcendent and mythologizing as Arthur Conley's "Sweet Soul Music" or the Clash's "White Man in Hammersmith Palais."

Squatting in the middle of all that love, though, is a core of outrage. Where, indeed, have all the rude boys gone? Why is the idea of racial harmony spoken of today only in cold, statistical, legislative argot rather than zeal and hallelujah? Throughout Hearts of Oak, Leo flies his trenchant idealism from the highest tree, tackling issues like Ugly Americanism (in "The Ballad of the Sin Eater") and sexism within the punk scene (in the album's title track). The Pharmacists' newest release, the nine-song EP Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead, goes even further down the road of the protest-music tradition. On "Loyal to My Sorrowful Country" -- an unaccompanied, amped-guitar-plus-vocals track that reeks of vintage Billy Bragg -- Leo declares that he'd rather renounce his homeland than give up his freedom under the aegis of Ashcroftian "security."

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