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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.

"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 Dayand 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."

"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."

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