On 2007’s Living With The Living, Ted Leo showed a penchant for experimentation not seen since his debut, the oddball, basement collection of lo-fi songs tej leo(?), Rx / pharmacists. While these two albums had few fundamental elements in common, both saw the New Jersey wordsmith lacing his lyrically elaborate, political (yet insanely catchy) songs with ambience and traces of dub. Although the latter was hyperliterate and wonderfully aggressive (and much more listenable than tej), with 15 songs and a bonus disc, it still felt somewhat bloated. With his most recent disc, The Brutalist Bricks, Leo and his crackerjack band The Pharmacists revert to bone hard basics, churning out their classic rock tinged-pop punk anthems with sparsity and speed, leaving no room for filler. It’s half as long and twice as good as Living, and in many ways is the quintessential Ted Leo album.
While there’s nothing on here as instantly singable or transcendent as “Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?” or “Timorous Me”, Leo and company keep things rolling at a caffeinated, romantic clip from the get go, starting things off with “The Mighty Sparrow” and its kicker of an opening line. “When the cafe doors exploded, I reacted to you.” In Leo’s world, revolution and love are of the same cloth, and despite “The Mighty Sparrow”‘s violent undertones, it jangles in your brain with fuzz bass, Chris Wilson’s possessed popcorn machine drum fills, and the playful twang of Leo and James Canty’s dueling Thin Lizzy guitars.
The socio-romantic aesthetic continues throughout the album. Leo’s political songs have always sounded like love songs, and nothing projects this like “Ativan Eyes”, a loud/soft proclamation that sounds like something Paul Westerberg would have written mid-career had he been more optimistic. You won’t even know it’s political until you read the lyrics, allowing the song to walk that fine territory between romantically revolutionary and revolutionarily romantic.
“Bottled In Cork” is another highlight, having the song’s narrator use call and response vocals to tell the story of an attempt to visit his sister and her newborn son in Copenhagen. In anyone else’s hands, it would be a pleasant, affectionate song of familial reunion, but with Leo’s talk of the United Nations and burying old grudges, he’s probably hinting at something deeper and darker. It’s always a bit tricky to decipher every one of his global and diplomatic references (the man’s done his homework), which would be a major setback if his songs weren’t so easy to dance to.
The album does have its angrier points strategically placed throughout. “Woke Up Near Chelsea” continues Leo’s fascination with the inertia of repetition, revolving around a single piano and bass riff that’s built upon with a wall of hard and lonely extraterrestrial guitars. “We all got a job to do and we all hate God. But we all got a job to do and we’re gonna do it together” sings Leo in his meanest falsetto, using a little fire and brimstone to inspire action among his listeners. Other harder edged tracks include the yelp and chase scene bass of “Mourning In America” and The Ramones flavored “Where Was My Brain?”
The album’s only misstep is “Tuberculoids Arrive In Hop”. With distant, muddled vocals, cricket sound effects, and a single strumming guitar, it feels out of place among all the kinetic fury of the rest of the songs. There’s nothing wrong with mellowing out a bit from the speedball pace, but it would feel more natural to do it with the whole band, and with more grit, as he does on “One Polaroid A Day” earlier on in the record.
But that’s a small complaint for the tightest, most direct album of Leo’s already stellar career (and let’s not forget his work with The Sin Eaters and Chisel). Rather than reinvent the wheel, he sits back and uses his strengths, showing us that the sound of settling is no reason to slow down. Whether your agenda is on the pulpit or the dance floor (or both), The Brutalist Bricks will get you moving.