By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
"Political things are the easiest things to write about. Unfortunately, those problems are the hardest thing to get to go away," Leo says with a rueful laugh. "It's kind of a forever-replenishing well of subject matter."
Most of Tell Balgeary taps into Leo's ironic cocktail of optimism and resignation. "And if there's a war/Another shitty war to fight for Babylon," he sings in "The High Party," "Then it's the perfect storm in a teacup/But you must drink it down." Like most tracks on the EP, it's another solo song. But instead of strumming away like a treacly, oversensitive troubadour, Leo bangs his electric guitar with vigor while his Glenn Tilbrook-channeling-Curtis Mayfield voice slices the ether like acid-edged saccharin. The disc also contains three covers, still more homage to his musical heroes: Ewan McColl's "Dirty Old Town" (as popularized by the Pogues), Split Enz's "Six Months in a Leaky Boat" and the Jam's "Ghosts," one of Paul Weller and company's uncelebrated masterpieces, a whispery, haunting tale of heartbreak that's concerned less with romance than with the betrayal of ideals and identity.
"Those types of Weller songs, in particular, are huge inspirations to me," Leo says of his idol's masterful knack for manifesting the political in the personal. "Doing things that way, it strips away a lot of the sort of ephemera that surrounds politics. Underlying almost any political issue you can think of is something sort of universally human that's at stake. I like treating those issues in a more intimate way. It's cool to hear D.R.I. yelling, 'Reaganomics killing me! Reaganomics killing you!' But the songs that resonate most with me -- and therefore, the type of milieu that I want to work in -- are the ones that put a more universal, human face on the subject, that cut into something a little deeper."
Chalk up Leo's depth and idealism to, of all things, an epiphany. While New Jersey is his perennial home, a place where he's been employed as everything from a video-store clerk to a dockworker, he lived in Washington, D.C., during Chisel's existence; it was there that he became friends with the guys in Fugazi, a band renowned for its tenacious dedication to integrity and social consciousness.
"One of the most profound moments for me in the last ten years was seeing Fugazi's tenth-anniversary show in D.C. in 1997," Leo recalls. "It was amazing to be able to witness such an insanely powerful and beautiful musical event. For the first time I really felt these people as artists, and not just as acquaintances. I was hit by it. Here's a band that had been around for ten years, and all the people involved had been doing this for the better part of the last twenty, and they had never compromised themselves. They continue to be relevant and exciting. It was at that moment that I said to myself, 'That is exactly where I want to be when I'm at that age.' Not a superstar or anything, but doing okay. It's perfect."
True, Ted Leo is no superstar, although he has appeared on MTV and Late Night With Conan O'Brien, not to mention being the subject of an upcoming documentary by indie filmmaker Justin Mitchell. But when it comes to musical epiphanies, he can dish them out as much as he can take them.
"When people talk to me at my shows, it usually winds up being more sort of personal, like, 'Your record made me feel this or that' or 'I haven't heard anything in a long time that's gotten me excited in that way,'" Leo notes. "There are guys older than me who say, 'Yeah, man, it reminds me of Graham Parker and Elvis Costello.' But then there are a lot of young people who have been coming out lately, like under eighteen. That's so cool, 'cause I don't know if they have any of those older reference points. I'm wondering if, to these really young kids, our stuff is actually something really new."
Punk rock that's intricately crafted and intellectually adroit and draws from Van Morrison as much as it does the Ramones? Yup, it probably is pretty new to most teenagers. About as new as, say, glittery house music might be to a man who's been slogging it in the rock-and-roll trenches for the past fifteen years.
"There's one house song I heard on that commercial last week that was particularly good. It's that band, uh, Sonique," Leo says, wrapping his mouth awkwardly around the unfamiliar name. He then starts hissing out a techno drumbeat before stretching his already elastic falsetto into a comical approximation of the chorus from Sonique's club hit "It Feels So Good." "YOUR LOVE...IT KEEPS ME ALIVE!" he wails, his voice climbing and climbing until finally shattering against a disco ball somewhere up in the Van Allen Belt. "I swear, it was an actual song! I think what I do is closer to that than it is to a lot of indie-rock stuff.
"It feels weird to say that," he admits with a laugh, sounding hesitant, getting ready to backpedal. Not all epiphanies, after all, are ones you necessarily want to flaunt. "Maybe I'll get over it in a week or something. But right now, that's how I'm feeling."