Pop-Punk With Intellect

The ever-outspoken Ted Leo says touring is a necessary grind

Populist intellectual rocker Ted Leo may roar like a lion, but he also purrs. Which is all the better for him and his band, the Pharmacists, to deliver the medicine, whether he's taking on the hypocrisy of war, death-dealing of the CIA, his own coming of age or the state of pop music.

For a singer-songwriter with a lot to say, he's surprisingly difficult to get on the phone. He postponed the interview that his publicist had scheduled because he was dealing with a broken-down van in Canada, and the Tucson Weekly then chased him for more than three days as the deadline for this story came and went.

The result? No interview with Ted Leo. But you can see and hear him in concert next Thursday, Nov. 1, at Club Congress.

Although Leo was born in South Bend, Ind., in 1970, he was raised a true-blue East Coaster in New Jersey. After graduating from Seton Hall Prep and Notre Dame, he lived in Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C.

During the late 1980s and '90s, he played in punk and post-hardcore bands such as Animal Crackers, Citizens Arrest and Chisel. Since 1999, he has led the trio Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, which also includes drummer Chris Wilson and, until August of this year, bassist Dave Lerner. (For the current tour, the Young Pioneers' Marty Violence is handling bass duties.)

Released in March, Living With the Living is the fifth full-length CD by Leo and the Pharmacists and the first that the group has recorded for the Chicago-based label Touch and Go Records, with most of its earlier recordings released by Lookout!

Other press outlets rightly have pointed out over the years that Leo has evolved from being influenced strictly by such strident voices as The Jam's Paul Weller, The Clash's Joe Strummer and Billy Bragg to making more intricate pop not unlike some of the best work by the likes of XTC's Andy Partridge and The Kinks' Ray Davies, as well a little Squeeze and The Pogues.

But one can also hear in Living With the Living evidence that Leo has been living with a lot of Joe Jackson and a little of Bruce Springsteen. It's also apparent that denizens of the now-defunct British label Stiff Records, such as Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, have probably played a large part in helping form Leo's ultraliterate songwriting style.

The new CD is a monumental achievement, proving that neither musical diversity nor a new label have watered down Leo's outspoken political viewpoints or compromised his search for entertaining, unique and stirring melodies.

There's something soulful in the pop-punk grooves on Living With the Living, as well as in Leo's fresh take on singing falsetto. Perhaps the best example is "The Toro and the Toreador," in which Leo makes like a blue-eyed R&B singer while criticizing political and social institutionalism.

Proving his wide musical range, Leo moves from the energetic Irish-style rocker "A Bottle of Buckie" into the raw punk polemic of "Bomb. Repeat. Bomb.," and then into the breezy beach pop of "La Costa Brava" with ease and confidence.

A couple of songs later, he takes on reggae and dub in "The Unwanted Things," and pulls it off. After several more mini-masterpieces that use sweet pop to help the political medicine go down, the digital version of the album ends with the distorted folk of bonus track "The Vain Parade," which devolves into a blizzard of noise and, finally, a minute or so of silence.

In an interview with Pitchfork, Leo recently explained his diverse tastes.

"That's just the simple fact that I'm an old hard-core kid, and I listen to old hard-core music. But I also listen to the Replacements and Celtic folk and stuff. If there was any conscious decision it--with the exception of the reggae song--it was less about taking those specific steps toward something as genre-specific as that as it was taking a step back and not allowing those things to be as specific as they wanted to be ... that was actually one of those transitions that actually screamed out at me. It's just a good mix-tape move. You don't want to cram all the songs that sound the same into one section of the album."

Recent experiences in Canada surely have tried Leo's patience. He apparently has a love-hate relationship with the road, as he related to TruePunk.com.

"Touring or traveling and playing every night, I love doing it, but it also has its drawbacks, and it does start to wear on you after so many years. However, playing live is actually a really integral part of the process for me. As much as I love just sitting around and playing songs, I don't think I would feel complete about it if I wasn't able to put together a set and a play them live. That's the final part of the process for me. A lot of people are perfectly happy to make music but never get on stage, but I really do need to take it out there, I think."