Hearts of Oak kept me alive the other night. Before you start envisioning some song-prevents-suicide scene ripped from the reels of "Pump Up the Volume" or some 1980s after-school special, let me contextualize. As you may or may not be aware, the Eastern seaboard of the United States was recently pummeled with a blizzard. My infinite stubborness convinced me that despite the storm warnings, I could make the driving trip from Washington, D.C. to New York City and back with no trouble. Needless to say, my infinite stubborness did not prove to be infinitely wise and I spent 6.5 hours driving through gusts and gales, flakes and flurries, and expanses of unplowed interstates, routes and streets. And through 80% of the drive, Hearts of Oak boomed on my car stereo, helping to prevent fatigue and providing a sometimes-comforting, sometimes-rollicking, mostly engaging soundtrack to a horrendous drive.
On Ted Leo and the Pharmacists' last two releases, 2000's Treble in Trouble EP (Ace Fu) and 2001's The Tyrrany of Distance (Lookout), Leo and his band developed a unique punk and pop-infused concoction of rock that delves into both the literary and the political without sounding pretentious or insincere. Hearts of Oak builds upon this formula by expanding the band's instrumentation and continuing to let Leo's politics, poetry and proficiency develop.
The latest release begins in marked contrast to its predecessor. Tyrrany... opens with the expansive call to arms "Biomusicology," on which Leo proclaims, atop a beat seemingly lifted from a Civil War drummer, "All and all, we cannot stop singing, we cannot start sinking we swim until it ends/ We may kill and we may be parted/ But we will ne'er be broken-hearted." Heart of Oak's introductory track, "Building Skyscrapers in the Basement," recalls a ballad one might hear at an Irish wake. Strings and guitars meld into a bagpipe-like cacophony as Leo muses sorrowfully, "I know some things I'd rather not, like the time ahead is all the time you've got." But he tempers the sadness with hope, adding, as the soundscape swells, "And one other thing I know: out from under layer after dark layer, as the years go by, a little girl can grow."
But Hearts... is filled with plenty of the defiant, hooky rockers that fill the Pharmacists' sweaty and energetic live show. Dave Lerner's foghorn-like bass line and Chris Wilson's syncopated triplet-filled drum work provide the foundation for Leo's guitar flourishes and newest Pharmacist Dorein Garry's organ-like keyboard on the "The High Party." The song laments both the creative process and the capitalist work cycle through such lyrics as: "And what do you make of the nights when you thought you'd make much more than being too tired to turn the lights out and too drunk to drink more?"
Throughout Hearts of Oak, Leo keenly submerges politics into rock 'n' roll. If ass-shaking is all you seek, the energy of the music is infectious. But, if you desire thoughtful, if sometimes enigmatic, reflections on affairs of state, they're just below the surface, waiting to be dredged from beneath the layers of sound and rapidly delivered words. Again, it is Lerner and Wilson whose collective rhythm work drives the epic rock poem "The Ballad of the Sin Eater." The lyrics relay a series of travels abroad in which foreigners express anti-American sentiment, which ultimately rises into the manic "told you so" chorus of, "You didn't think they could hate you, now did you? Ah, but they hate you, and they hate you coz you're guilty."
Leo's political agenda isn't well defined, beyond encouraging both open-mindedness and a resistance to apathy. You can hear it in the midtempo, syncopated strum-a-thon "Bridges, Squares," on which Leo sounds like Baudelaire's late-19th century "man of the world' strolling about the bridges and squares of Boston and Jersey, drinking in the beauty of the past while asserting, "It's not the time to ossify/ It's not the end of wondering why/ It's not in your faith or your apostasy/ It's not the end of history."
The only real problem with Hearts of Oak is that the band still can't make their less immediately compelling tracks sound as electric and urgent on record as they do when the Pharmacists tear up the stage. The millisecond-too-slow pace of "I'm a Ghost," the lack of well defined dynamics on "2nd Ave, 11AM," the lack of intimacy in the solo-electric guitar piece, "First to Finish, Last to Start," are all missteps the Pharmacists don't make in the live setting, so it's irksome to hear them captured for infinite replay on CD.
Despite those shortcomings, Hearts of Oak is a thoroughly engaging, rocking, thoughtful record. And while I can't guarantee that it will help to keep you alive in a massive blizzard, I can pretty well guarantee that it will make you want to dance and protest, revel and reflect. That, it seems, is just what Ted Leo and the Pharmacists were aiming for.