ed Leo and the Pharmacists’ most recent record, 2004’s underrated, underappreciated, and kickass Shake The Sheets, stands as a virtual tutorial in economic songwriting, navigating its way both melodically and lyrically from point A to Z as quickly and efficiently as possible. In its first two minutes, “Little Dawn” manages to encapsulate everything from Afro-beat to post-hardcore to early r&b—its first two minutes! It’s unquestionably Leo’s most accomplished record, if not his best, so the question arises: now what? Living with the Living, Leo’s fifth album and debut for Touch & Go, is his most eclectic and unpredictable to date, diversifying an already potent mix of sophisticated punk and power-pop with soul, reggae, and other elements.
So let’s just start with the big one: “The Toro and the Toreador” may be a quintessential Ted Leo song title but it’s unlike anything you’ll find on any of his post-Chisel records (its closest relative is maybe “The Last Good Time” from Chisel’s Set You Free). For one thing, it’s a goddamn power-ballad. Leo opens with gentle tremoloed chords building tension gradually until the track bursts into a soaring full band arrangement replete with background harmonizing “ooooh”s. It might be the best thing he’s done. Leo implores, “You’ve got a choice: it’s the toro or the toreador.” That sense of the value of community—the only practical response Leo seems to have found for his permanent political frustrations—is suffused throughout the record. It’s invoked in tracks like “Sons of Cain,” and the epic “Lost Brigade” with its coda’s hopeful refrain of “Every little memory has a song.” Leo’s previous philosophy seemed to be, “If you don’t complain from the top of your lungs you’re part of the problem,” but unlike its vitriolic predecessor, Living with the Living is stitched with a sense of hope. It’s a welcome respite.
Those themes of hope and community also support the record’s title. Living With the Living is Leo’s most introspective record to date. “Colleen,” for instance, is probably the least political tune he’s ever written, while “La Costra Brava” suggests a peaceful domesticity just within his grasp. Two decades spent toiling on the road can isolate a person. Now, 36-years-old and married, Leo suddenly has something in common with pretty much everyone, and his music has finally begun to reflect that.
Living With the Living isn’t without its share of flaws. Ted Leo’s music has always evoked an internal conflict between his startling pop sensibility and some frustrating allegiance to the scene—the punk-ethical dilemma—as though there’s some imaginary governing body somewhere prepared at all times to cast him out of their kingdom lest he stray too far from its ideals. For better or worse, Ted Leo cares about this (and he cares about this a lot). So for all their unwavering and well-meaning passion, he and the Pharmacists certainly have their share of confused reluctance. How else to explain Living With the Living’s flat production courtesy of Fugazi’s Brendan Canty, a far cry from the dynamic, near-perfect sound Chris Shaw delivered for Shake the Sheets? You almost get the sense Leo must be embarrassed by how good his last record sounds, opting instead to appease some imaginary punk ethic to the detriment of his songs.
Those issues aside, Living with the Living continues Ted Leo’s rather remarkable string of consistency. There’s nothing sexy about praising a Ted Leo when we can rep whatever new shit’s coming out of suburban Newfoundland, but that commitment to consistency and quality deserves mention. Living With the Living might not be his absolute best record but it’s still a pretty fucking good one. After all, that’s what Ted Leo does.
Reviewed by: Barry Schwartz
Reviewed on: 2007-03-23