CD Review – Ted Leo and the Pharmacists “Shake the Sheets”

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
Shake the Sheets

Grade: A

Ted Leo likes to make the distinction that his songs are not pop-rock, but punk-rock ballads. This could be true if your idea of punk rock is not a distinct sound but music with political leanings. Simply dropping the modifier and leaving it “rock” seems to put him where he belongs — strumming his guitar on a perch safely above the slush pile of genres below.

Shake the Sheets, like the band’s first two albums, The Tyranny of Distance and Hearts of Oak, is a solid set of poignant rock songs.

Critics often compare Ted Leo with Elvis Costello or The Jam. What he has most in common with these forebears is songwriting ability. The listener feels a tinge of honesty and truthfulness in his music. Listening to the band in the context of political music, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ catalogue is proof you don’t need to scream until the hangy ball in the back of your throat bleeds for people to understand the political state of the world.

Refreshingly, Ted Leo’s lyrics don’t get in the way of the music. The songs are sewn equally from belief and musical complexity, both existing without impeding upon the other.

The song “Heart Problems” refers to Vice President Dick Cheney’s medical condition. “You’ve got a problem with your heart/ Follow the line down your left arm/ If you don’t have money in your left hand/ You feel put upon,” Leo sings. The song is about a man wealthy enough to afford health insurance but who still doesn’t feel rich enough, while Ted Leo “can’t afford a broken nose,” as he sings later. The Cheney interpretation is one of several, but Leo has written a poetic lament that is also one of the most upbeat songs on the album.

Organs and string sections are missing from Shake the Sheets, instruments he used sparingly but creatively on prior albums.

The newest record sounds like a band making full use of the basic guitar-bass-drums three-piece. The biggest difference between this album and the previous two lay in production value. With better overall sound quality, this CD should come with a gold sticker on the cover that says “Production Value Included.”

When Leo repeats the words “it’s alright” for the last minute of “Little Dawn,” he speaks of the hope for change in an election year; it’s part of the album’s overarching theme. To use a modifier, it’s political rock. Whether the country is doomed or on the verge of another great era, at least there will be music that’s good listenting.

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