Leo and the Pharmacists
Hearts of Oak
label: Lookout Records
our score: 3.5 out of 5.0
recently, I have harbored only one gripe with Ted Leo and The
Pharmacists: The Tyranny of Distance (2001), that sweet
bomb dropped on the playground of guitar pop, boasted a cover
closely resembling the Pacific Life logo. But all was forgiven
when the music itself assured me that Leo wasn’t dabbling
in something so flimsy as mutual funds. His currency was and,
I’m happy to report, remains the immutable elements of any
great pop song: chord change, vocal range and turn of phrase.
yet, I’m compelled to tell any of you looking to own only
the essential Ted Leo record that the much-lauded Hearts of
Oak isn’t it. Of course, if you’re taking this
kind of reductive approach, I might ask you, why Ted Leo at all
and not Mellencamp? But that sort of inflammatory elitism obscures
his fundamental irresistibility. When Leo’s on his game,
he’s the life not just of the pop literati party but of
the album’s should-be leadoff track. There’s no better
way to lament our country’s slow democratic suicide than
through a litany of paranoia and conservatism followed by the
innocent refrain, “Where have all the rude boys gone?”
As is always the case with Leo, whose tireless, boyish vocals
could buoy any lyrical millstone, there’s as much eloquent
rallying as protest. “Bridges, Squares” offers image
after image of a world in which we can still be agents of our
fates, fates free from dogma and full of creativity:
“This is not the time to ossify,” Leo insists. “It’s
not the end of wondering why. It’s not in your faith or
your apostasy. It’s not the end of history.”
if Leo doesn’t slay you with his heady, poignant verse,
his axe is even sharper. Find me a guitarist whose licks better
champion the virtues of terse, compact playing than Ted Leo’s.
The rare solo, as in the Tyranny standout “St. John the
Divine” or Hearts’ excellent title track, is virtually
slingshot out of the very tension his economic playing builds.
If less were ever more, it is right here.
in spite of its many virtues, why does Hearts fall short of its
predecessor? There are moments when it feels like summer reading.
You know it’s good – your teachers insist –
but it’s not where you’re at right now. You’d
rather cop an easier buzz.
Ballad of a Sin Eater” is the biggest culprit of what I
reluctantly call The Elvis Costello Syndrome. Even Elvis himself
isn’t guilty of this all of the time, but you know what
I’m talking about. By the end of the song, instead of hitting
“repeat,” you’re reaching for the thesaurus.
Leo’s just leveled you with some behemoth of an abstraction
– in this instance, call it a mythological travelogue and
leave it at that – and you can’t even remember the
chorus. Or was there one?
listens this onerous are few and far between, but their presence
raises this related weakness: the occasional lack of hooks. Tyranny
impressed precisely because it carried its smarts so effortlessly,
as if the songwriting yoke really were easy. Meanwhile, Hearts
seems to catch Leo straining a bit, which in turn asks more of
the listener. The writing is more oblique and less emotionally
evocative, and his vocals seem a tad stretched on the more demanding
let’s not forget that this is a Ted Leo record. And if you
don’t know what I mean, it’s time to find out. Hearts
of Oak is still high-octane pop rock that leaves you feeling pleasantly
windblown. It just takes a little less time to recover.
liked Hearts of Oak...
Skycrapers In The Basement
2. Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone
3. I'm A Ghost
4. The High Party
5. Hearts Of Oak
6. The Ballad Of The Sin Father
7. Dead Voices
8. The Anointed One
9. Bridges, Squares
10. Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead
11. 2nd Ave, 11 AM
12. First To Finish, Last to Start
13. The Crane Takes Flight