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Ted Leo + The Pharmacists
Shake The Sheets

Teddy L. is a hero to a handful and admired by most. A D.I.Y.-'til-he-dies kind of guy, Leo has been gutting it out in places like Ithaca, Duluth and Grinnell for more than a decade now. It's admirable work he's been putting in, first with proto pop-punkers Chisel, then brief tours of duty with The Spinanes and the Sin Eaters, and now with his current band, the Pharmacists. He remains a staple in East Coast indie rock, thanks to his soaring, affecting croon that overflows his cleverly constructed, anti-imperialistic brand of punk. The jangly guitar attack that dominates most of his music is frighteningly infectious, too. That said, Leo's third full-length with the Pharmacists is his least addictive recording.

After his semi-breakout into the national consciousness with 2003's Hearts of Oak, I think some of us were expecting something a bit more adventurous from Leo. I've seen him in concert five or so times and his live show is rousing. Whether flying solo or churning it out with a full band, he's got a manic but professional way on stage. A solo follow-up EP, Tell Balgeary, Balgury's Dead was an incendiary treatment of Split Enz and Jam covers along with some experimental jamming. The songs on his latest, often about political ambivalence and soul-searching alienation, are still catchy as V.D. But they lack the fiery complexity of past efforts.

The album's closer best sums up the traditional aesthetic on Shake the Sheets. "Walking to Do" is about as conventional musically as Leo has sounded to date, bomp-bomp-bomping along to a cheery thump, flailing along to a sing-along coda. It's got everybody from The Coasters to Thin Lizzy to thank for its sprightly convention, and it's good — very peppy, in fact. But it lacks the cutting scythe of Hearts of Oak's "The Ballad of the Sin Eater."

"Heart Problems" is a full blast on drug companies that doubles as a yearning for health in a Fast Food Nation. Despite good intentions, it doesn't have much staying power. Billy Bragg's influence on Leo shows on the "Better Dead Than Lead," wherein his voice reaches a fever-pitch squeal. It's by far the best thing on here, and the closest he gets to his unheralded debut with the Pharmacists, The Tyranny of Distance. The previously released "Bleeding Powers" gets a window treatment and spruced-up lawn job, filled out with a charging drum track that backs the hopeful, insistent chorus. Fervently defying our president's intentions, his falsetto swoons "And still you couldn't let them drown in their own hate no more/ The road leads somewhere and it's not yet to your door/ And you still see people waiting for the next excuse for war." It's another highlight.

Shake the Sheets is more competent, reaffirming rock from Ted Leo, but it's not quite up to snuff compared to his recent efforts. Some have called this album more direct, without the wordy dillydallying that has alienated Leo from a broader audience. Me, I'll take the intricate, convoluted Ted any old time.

by Sean Fennessey

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