Ted Leo & The Pharmacists Living With The Living

[Touch & Go; 2007]

Styles: vague political rhetoric, rock ‘n’ soul, “I’m Irish!”
Others: Elvis Costello, The Clash, Thin Lizzy

Somewhere between the third and fourth world wars (read: albums), Ted Leo lost his footing and tumbled down the mountain of sound, hitting every wrong note on the way to the bottom. A traditionally comic sight colored painful by the remembrance of past highs: Ted Leo used to shake his hips on that mountain as the island’s villagers clamored below for an encore or a sweaty, face-imprinted shroud. What’s become even more obvious since 2004’s Shake The Sheets is this: the same old is the same old, except now it’s just old.

Ted has been on a slight decline for most of the new century now, taking a pair of nail clippers and stripping his sound down further with each album-length release. I’m fairly certain Ted Leo has no toenails. Some artists take simplification as a way to show off their wares, in all their bare glory. Ted makes the mistake on Living With The Living of paring away the melody, tune, thoughtfulness, hooks, memorable lyrics, instrumentation, etc., and onward. And it’s getting more and more distressing considering the relative pop perfection present in The Tyranny of Distance and Hearts of Oak. He’s making his back-catalogue look better as he moves forward, and that’s not the best herald of progression. Even the Pharmacists, the backing band pushed further to the back than any other backing band in the history of shadowy corners, don’t add anything special to the mix. It’s mystifying to even think of what kind of baked good they were trying to make rise out of this concoction. A boring pie? It’s burnt cookies, no matter which way you shake it. And where did the female Pharmacist go?

If you feel the need to pop the disc into your stereo and hear what three years of twiddling your thumbs sounds like, here’s a walkthrough: We’re given a brief half-minute intro featuring... “foreign” voices over drums. We can’t hear anything they’re saying (we only speak English in America), but we can probably assume it’s very alluring and political, as it’s titled “Fourth World War.” This running theme of “it sounds political, but it’s not” will continue to establish itself as we move on. “The Sons of Cain” follows, and it’s a little bit fun. Bouncy guitars and Ted’s squawking, it’s not too hard to imagine jaunting down an unpaved sidewalk in a desert town with an ice cream cone in hand, sand blowing in your face, spotting out children giggling on see-saws or something of the ilk. There’s this neat part where some discordant piano keys slam down on top of the guitars, and they retreat like wounded animals while we’re treated to some frantic-paced acoustic and handclaps.

Unfortunately, that’s about as interesting and fun as the proceedings get. “Colleen” is an obvious choice for being the finger-snapping grizzly beast of the lot, but despite all the casings of one, it just isn’t. Ted puts on a hard face in “Bomb.Repeat.Bomb,” a totally fork-tongued indictment of something or other (“it’s political, but it’s not”). The song is actually pretty swell regardless of Ted’s only apparent reference to “hard” being a candy apple. There's no doubt that political records do more to damage a person’s listening tolerance than any ballistic missile on a small schoolhouse, but a political record too timid to say anything is sad like a cherry bomb in a toilet. I mean, dig that sample of an airplane flying overhead at the end. See? In some pre-release interviews out there on the web, Ted pointed out that this album wasn’t intended to be a political statement of any real import, so it’s perplexing as to why it’s dressed up as one. Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter what he has to say as long as the songs carry it well enough, but the cold truth is that they nearly all succumb to their own separate weaknesses, allowing the half-proposed political/social commentary to fall flat.

This is a bloated, overlong rock record that shouldn’t have even considered breaking the 40-minute mark. It breaks that cardinal rule like Bane broke the back of The Bat. The song lengths can’t even keep their enthusiasm in check; it’s unlikely that four of the fifteen songs really honestly needed six minutes to explain themselves. Anything cuts like “The Lost Brigade” and “C.I.A.” had to offer discerning ears gets lost in the shuffle of the exhausting track lengths. Ted’s a nice guy, and he knows how to write solid tunes, but this transgression can’t be allowed to slide: the song “The Unwanted Things” is pretty close to the feeling of being shot in the leg with a gun that blasts out hungry and stubborn fire ants. Yes, Ted Leo has branched out into the diverse field of white-guy reggae. There really are no words to describe it, as all words shudder to think of being included in the next Ted Leo reggae-spring-break-beach-anthem-classic and have taken to hiding under small rocks.

Overturn a few of the rocks and you’ll find spelled out in plain American English, “Ted, come back home.”

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