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.