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Idealism doesn't age as well as cynicism. Perhaps that's why punk's earnest socio-politics evolved into the ironic distance of indie rock. It may also be why there are so few artists like Ted Leo, who've retained both the brash tone of their rhetoric and punk's compassionate spirit through two decades of making music.
A New Jersey native who fronted a pair of hard-core bands in the late '80s, Leo moved to D.C., where he started mod-punk act Chisel, which released two critically lauded albums before breaking up in 1997. Two years later, he started Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and went on to release six albums of smart, hooky, impassioned indie rock.
Just as he was hitting a stride after his well-received third and fourth records, 2003's Hearts of Oak and 2004's Shake the Sheets, trouble struck. First his label, longtime indie Lookout Records, went belly-up. He found a home with Touch & Go for 2007's Living With the Living, but that record was written while his significant other underwent chemotherapy — and mounting medical bills forced him to spend even more time away on the road. Then lightning struck twice, and Touch & Go shuttered its doors.
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Unlike Living, whose creation and subject matter weighed heavily on Leo, his latest, Brutalist Bricks, was forged with a recharged attitude. He first began writing the album in the spring of last year, but discarded it because, well, "everything still felt really heavy," he recalls. "I was like, 'I don't think I actually want to live with this big, heavy record, physically and emotionally.'" When Leo and his band returned to the studio six months later, the demeanor had changed notably.
"Being able to step off that hamster wheel, where you can't really see what's up around the bend but only what's coming at you fast," says Leo, whose band was still without a label at the time, "it helped me get a little bit of perspective about the whole thing — the whole thing meaning the last twenty years of my life. I think, in a weird way, it opened up the songwriting for a little bit more of just me using my voice and not maybe feeling like I had to say something."
Brutalist Bricks is an eclectic album, notable both for its upbeat attitude and for Leo's dip into a more soulful style reminiscent of late-period Jam tracks such as "Absolute Beginners" and "A Town Called Malice." "Gimme the Wire" and "Stick" still channel a bracing punk rumble, while others embrace a more hopeful, somewhat R&B-inflected stance. Leo describes writing sincere, hopeful songs as "personal therapy" to deal with his own advancing cynicism. He long ago shed any rose-colored idealism, but being pragmatic's not the same as giving up the fight.
"We're an incredibly unevolved species of people," Leo says. "Technology has taken leaps and bounds in a thousand years, yet we're essentially the same grunting, dragging-women-by-the-hair cartoon cavemen. I don't see any utopia happening in my lifetime or for a long time. But, of course, it happens incrementally, and if you can be even remotely part of one of those increments, I don't see any reason not to be."