Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
Shake the Sheets


f you make the scarcest pretense to care about the Future of America, chances are you’ve bared your claws at some point in 2004.

60s idealism is dead as dead. Bitter recrimination’s back in a big fucking way. Doomsday prophesying’s at an all-time high, discourse an all-time low. If the Other Side wins, we’ll either get bombed back to Baghdad or lose our liberties, every last one. Too much is at stake, so everybody’s going negative, whether it’s Jon Stewart, Steve Earle, Swift Boat Veterans or Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

So why the fuck should we listen to Ted Leo when he says “it’s alright”, so many times that it starts to sound like his mantra?

Well, for starters, Leo’s not just being naive. Anyone who heard “The Ballad of the Sin Eater” or “The High Party”—a venomous pair of diatribes aimed at American myopia and self-absorption, full of highbrow putdowns and polysyllabic scorn—from Leo’s terrific 2003 release, Hearts of Oak, could tell you that.

Leo’s well-documented wordiness is noticeably subdued on Shake the Sheets, but a lack of clutter isn’t the reason the record succeeds (especially when you consider how Ted has made pretension work wonders for him before).

No, the true revelations of Shake the Sheets are resiliency and hope, determination in the face of adversity and faith in a beneficent outcome. Some harried liberals may feel themselves forced into a corner, able only to lash out hopelessly at real or imagined aggressors, but Leo (in this year of all years) has taken a doggedly proactive stance, trying to rally support as the race enters the home stretch.

The best Leo can offer in the way of bile is an allusion on the title track to baboons and excrement, and if you’ve heard “The Ballad of the Sin Eater” (typical line: “someday they’ll do the Wa-Tutsi / Down in Hutu hell”) it’s clear his heart lies elsewhere.

Instead, Leo would rather pull up the proverbial bootstraps and hunker down in the trenches. He says “I’m worried for my tired country”, but his real concerns are more pragmatic than nakedly political, giving equal time on “The Angels’ Share” to “melodies to help a girl pay rent” as he does to an “open letter to a president”.

But Leo’s ennobling samaritanism doesn’t end there. He puts the “civil” back in civil disobedience on the title track, vowing to help right institutional wrongs while promising “I respect the covenant / I respect the rules”. And on the album’s spiritual nexus, “Little Dawn”, Leo entreats, “go on and stretch your weary hand to me” before launching into a hypnotic repetition of the most alien-sounding catchphrase of this campaign season: “it’s alright”.

Leo proves himself emotionally enervating throughout, so it’s really a shame that Shake the Sheets isn’t half so sonically invigorating. Radical ideology and riff-rock immediacy represent the primary forces Leo tries to reconcile in his music, and he’s at his very best when you can’t see the seams of the intersection (the Mellencampish heartland rocker “Timorous Me” or the scenester subversions of “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” for instance).

Always a firebrand, Leo’s arguably never been more politicized than he is on Shake the Sheets, but he’s also never aped 70s rock more gratuitously. Those uncooperative trends of rebellion and reassurance are sifted out and separated here more than ever, a dissonance that takes Leo’s populist triumphs to task.

Rather than use blue-collar rock as a statement of inclusion, a means to effect a deeper connection to his material, Leo seems instead to fall back too often on power chords as a lazy associative trope, familiar shorthand to prove his humble intent.

“Criminal Piece” cops the riff Cheap Trick adopted to cover Big Star’s “In the Street” for the theme to That 70s Show, while “Better Dead than Lead” is Sabbath-lite, plain and simple. And of course, Leo’s stylistic pater familias Thin Lizzy rears its head here as well, especially on the kinetic closer “Walking to Do”.

Leo’s rhetoric, dated as it may be, is refreshing rather than pandering. Too bad the opposite’s true with some of his tunes.

Reviewed by: Josh Love

Reviewed on: 2004-10-19

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Posted 10/19/2004 - 01:46:17 AM by mbloodyv:
 Great review. It's so refreshing to hear songs like "Angel's Share" and "Little Dawn" today -- protest songs without a doubt, but ones that aren't dripping with the same sort of banal, whiny, name-calling as the vast majority of "protest" songs that the NOFxs and Le Tigres of the world are hemorrhaging today. I also agree that a few of the songs here are completely blah and hinder the strides made in the better tunes. Still through -- great album.
Posted 10/19/2004 - 10:38:40 AM by mbloodyv:
 Also, why does every reviewer compare "Timorous Me" to a Mellencamp song? Am I the only person who doesn't see the similarity? It all started with one comment on the stupid pitchfork review, and then every single person had to make the same "observation." How many "Mellencampish heartland rockers" include an Irish jig (which is, by the way, an homage to Ted's alma mater Notre Dame)? Besides the "Me and Johnny sittin in the green grass" opening line, there's nothing Johnny Cougar in the song. Sorry, just something that annoys me.
Posted 10/19/2004 - 11:09:23 AM by JT_Ramsay:
 "Also, why does every reviewer compare "Timorous Me" to a Mellencamp song? Am I the only person who doesn't see the similarity?" No, you're not alone.It's a total Thin Lizzy ripoff! Jailbreak, anyone?
Posted 10/19/2004 - 05:37:35 PM by patrick_hurley:
 I got a chance to see Ted's live show this weekend at the knitting factory, and he fucking rocked my ass off. Earlier in the day, i talked with him for a while after an "artist and politics" panel at the CMJ music marathon. He's so down to earth, and really means what he says. I'm from Indiana, home state of Johnny Cougar, and "Timorous Me" doesn't sound like a fucking Mellencamp song AT ALLL!!!!!
Posted 10/20/2004 - 02:21:42 AM by JoshLove:
 OK, I admit it's mostly just the "Me and Johnny sitting in the green grass bit" that invites the comparison, I guess we're all just looking for anything besides the obvious Thin Lizzy invocation. And that's great about seeing Ted live, Patrick, I'm actually going to his show on Saturday in the ATL, really hoping he does "The Ballad of the Sin Eater" this time since he didn't when I saw him earlier this year. I'd imagine he's really hyped-up and intense with the election around the corner, he was linking the Jon Stewart appearance on Crossfire from his web site on Sunday, so you just know he's already locked in.
Posted 10/20/2004 - 02:39:09 AM by zach.in.kansas:
 So I suppose it is evident then, that none of you actually read that "stupid pitchfork review"?
Posted 10/22/2004 - 03:14:20 PM by kidspark83:
 The new album rocks! I read that review in pitchfork. I wouldnt go so far as to call "Timorous Me" a "mellencamp song". The recent Shake the Sheets pitchfork review is crap.WTF? Ted Leo+Pharmacists are awesome!
Posted 10/29/2004 - 06:36:51 PM by Donkey_Tom:
 Wow, I don't know JL. I think you maybe nailed an aspect of the social consciousness in the lyrics that I hadn't really honed in on, but I don't know if saying Shake the Sheets isn't "sonically-invigorating" makes any sense to me. I think that with TL/Rx there's a tendency among most reviewers and hipsters to kind of focus in on naming the influences way too much. Maybe that's because Ted is only really known among the indie-conscious who like to, well, be a little snobby and flaunt their rock knowledge. But as someone who doesn't make a special effort to filter away the commercial labels and is therefore more likely to hear Matchbox 20 than Thin Lizzie on any given day, I have to say that this album blows me away. Maybe that's just because I'm musically-ignorant, but I think that this music stands on its own and has significant crossover potential to the unwashed masses. Which would be great, because the masses could use lyrics that mean something.
Posted 11/16/2004 - 07:43:36 PM by brandon1025:
 I think what he meant by "less sonically invigorating" is that Ted has pared down his band from a four (and sometimes five) piece to a three piece. While still pretty fuckin invigorating, there are fewer layers to the sound to bring you back to listen again and again... I personally have already started listening to 'hearts of oak' again... It's just the little things that really pull it together, like a shaker, backup guitarist, backup singers, etc. All the little sonic details that add depth to the song. Like that old saying about parts being worth more than their whole. I could be wrong, but that's my story.
Posted 11/23/2004 - 03:18:51 PM by milliard:
 i've loved leo live, and i've loved leo's records, but i have to admit this leo is, personally, more than a little boring. maybe if this material had appeared before i became conditioned to put leo on for his endlessly involving enthusiasm and verve...
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