A Political Prescription

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists don't approve of titular puns

Tuesday, Nov. 2, marks the most important election of our lives, and the psychic weight of that fact is as palpable as the smell of ozone before a thunderstorm. We are collectively ill at ease, uncertain and unsettled. Call it the ghost of future emotion.

As a prelude to this fateful Tuesday--the first day of the rest of our lives--comes a first-time Tucson visit from Ted Leo, a performer who harnesses the nervous electricity of human interaction as a modus operandi. And not coincidentally, the politically minded Leo believes that the separation of politics from art, music or any endeavor is not just impossible but contrary to what it means to be human.

"Since when does art not address the issues of life?" Leo demands. "It's demeaning to suggest that a musician or any other artist should limit themselves to creating solely for 'entertainment,'" he says, disputing the trope that artists or celebrities should not avail whatever platform their visibility affords them. In the conventional wisdom of the punditocracy, Linda Ronstadt is somehow not qualified to wax political, yet a bowtied weasel like Tucker Carlson treats it as his birthright.

"I don't mean to direct my anger here toward you, but let me just say how fucking sick of this whole question I am! It's ridiculous. Tell Charles Dickens he should've written pulp. Tell Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan they should've sang more about girls. Then kindly fuck off and die, you know? Life is political; art is life, ergo, art is political. No two ways about it."

On Shake the Sheets, released last week on Lookout Records, Leo and his band, the Pharmacists, further etch out the contours of the sub-genre they've devised by default. Part yeah-yeah, part soul, part ska/rude boy, TL/RX (as they abbreviate their somewhat unwieldy handle) make thoroughly modern rock that hews only to its own tradition. Sounding like a young Joe Jackson (never more so than on "Little Dawn"), Leo sings about life and politics and art and sex with the conviction of the convert.

The dynamics of Leo's songs are the same on Shake the Sheets as on previous records--hyperkinetic melodies punctuated by Leo's oft-employed falsetto over herky-jerky but propulsive rhythms. But it's pithy lyrics, something for which Leo is known, that stand out. "I'd like to say 'We'll see it right' / But when you can't afford a broken nose / how can you afford to fight?" laments Leo on the anthemic "Heart Problems," a pointed critique of lacking health care coverage that ends with a list of common pharmaceuticals. On the title track, Leo articulates his anger at the current administration directly: "I want to take it to the president, him and all the cabinet, with a broom / I want to sweep the Halls of Arrogance / sweep the walls of the excrement of those baboons." Much of Sheets is replete with this type of sentiment, and it's refreshing to hear an artist of Leo's stature pulling out all the political stops as we grind our way toward Nov. 2.

"I can't really write on the road, but I'm always mentally filing away melodies and stuff," Leo says about his songwriting process. "When I feel like it's about time to start a new record, I hunker down for a month or so and try to remember all of those melodies and stuff, and flesh it all out in a pretty intense few weeks of 12-hour days in the basement."

The basement to which he refers is his parents' (in the parlance of the bio one-sheet, it's "his childhood home in New Jersey"), so perish any MTV Cribs fantasies despite the groundswell TL/RX seem to be riding.

"Maybe it's just me, but I think that people may have the idea that we're more successful than we are. I mean, we've been getting a lot of press lately, and we're playing slightly bigger clubs in a lot of cities, but we're still traveling without a roadie in the same beat-up '98 van with almost 300,000 miles on it and wondering when we're going to be able to afford health insurance, you know?"

Continuing, Leo puts his career in the correct perspective. "We didn't just pop out of the major label womb fully formed. We've all been making music for almost 15 years now, so we've seen it ebb and flow and ebb and flow, and build-build-build, which may diminish the surface appreciation of whatever 'success' we've achieved a little bit, but because we understand why we are what we are so well--because we can see exactly how yesterday led to today--maybe we actually have a bit of a deeper appreciation after all."

One surefire indicator of the success-in-the-making that is Shake the Sheets is the level of downloading activity with which it has been met, but such illegitimate enthusiasm presents a conundrum for independent artists who rely on being able to sell their CDs at shows. Shake the Sheets leaked onto file-trading sites in August, a full two months before it was to be released. Leo acknowledges, "I was a little bummed, yeah, but mainly because it happened so fast. You work hard at creating this thing, and before you've even had a full week to settle in with the final mastered version, it's all over the Internet. That's just rude, man." Reaching for a way to be sanguine about the situation, Leo says, "I'm psyched that people want to hear it, and I don't care a ton if a bunch of people download it, but I do get a little miffed when I look at how it affects our situation and our ability to continue doing what we do at the level people have come appreciate and expect from us. I just feel like everyone ought to be adequately compensated for their work. Some people are certainly overcompensated, but not punk and indie musicians."

Whatever effect downloading ultimately has on Shake the Sheets seems likely to be negligible, because Leo's fan-base is largely imbued with the indie ethos that says "support those you appreciate with patronage," specifically when the performer comes through town. It's all about the show, man, and for most recording artists of Leo's stature, touring is the only surefire way to make actual money. On that note (not that any encouragement is needed from this quarter), get your asses down to see Ted Leo and the Pharmacists on their slow ascent to ever-greater relevance.