Listeners already au fait with this splendid band should find plenty of cheer.
Noel Gardner 2010-04-12
Ted Leo has been working at the coalface of independent music for over 20 years now: initially in New York’s hardcore punk scene in the late 80s, and later adopting a more melodic tack with his 90s band Chisel. Fronting The Pharmacists for roughly a decade, and developing them into a golden amalgam of punk, mod-rock and upbeat folkisms, his cachet has increased exponentially, to the point that he can claim minor indie-rock celeb status. In the US, that is – despite the strong influence music of the British Isles holds over Leo, he’s a cult figure at best on this landmass. Will The Brutalist Bricks, the sixth Pharmacists full-length (and first on alpha-indie label Matador), see him making the step up?
It deserves to, certainly, but the same could be said of the last three. It’s peppered with allusions to socialist belief and struggle – the first lyric on the album begins, “When the cafe doors exploded...” while Ativan Eyes, crows, “The means of production are now in the hands of the workers!” Leo’s siding with the proverbial common man seems to come from a similar angle to some of his musical influences – Jam-era Weller, Billy Bragg, the jittery punk incarnation of Elvis Costello, and Thin Lizzy during The Brutalist Bricks’ more explicitly rocking moments. Even the album’s most traditionally punk-paced number, the infectious polka-beat banger The Stick, sounds oddly like Sympathy for the Devil played at twice the speed.
Both in words and music, this album works by letting anger and warmth share a platform. In this respect, listeners already au fait with this splendid band should find plenty of cheer. (On hearing the wistful travel-diary lyrics of Woke Up Near Chelsea, long-term fans might be reminded of The Ballad of the Sin Eater, Leo’s similarly city-naming gem from 2003’s Hearts of Oak.) Yet it’s hard not to consider other recent graduates of Punker College who’ve found mainstream success with a rootsy, everyman tunefulness – namely The Hold Steady and The Gaslight Anthem. For this writer’s money, The Brutalist Bricks knocks them into a cocked hat.