Different for People
425 · 20 March 03
Ted Leo / Pharmacists: Hearts of Oak
"If there's a war, another shitty war", Ted Leo begins in the middle of a song in the middle of his second or fourth or seventh album or so. The sentence doesn't finish with much, in the same way that sentences about war haven't finished with much since somebody first noted that if we were really an intelligent species we wouldn't still be doing this. Intelligent creatures would recognize that we share this planet, at least for the moment, and thus must (compelled by nothing any of us can be blamed for) find ways to co-inhabit it. We aren't that intelligent. Or enough of us aren't. Or maybe our moral empathy simply isn't as strong as our geek curiosity to find out whether the new missiles actually work. So we still fight.
And tonight, as we fight, or prepare to, I am listening to records. Belle is here, working on her book, and we are listening to records. And I don't pretend to know whether Iraq has a secret chemical weapon program or if there was really another way out of whatever we're in, any more than I know how to solve any other pocket of animal intransigence in the world tonight. I don't know how to make us behave, as a species, as if we were as wise as we ought to be. I don't even know, given the abundance of evidence that we are not, why I keep thinking we could be. But I know that sweeping the horizon with rifle sights, looking for human beings to shoot, is a bad way to spend time, and smiling at someone you're in love with while music plays is a good one.
Ted Leo was in Chisel, and some other bands before and after. This is his fourth official solo album, and the second in a row that sounds like it was made by a rock band. In particular, it sounds like it was made by a rock band composited out of piano-less versions of a lot of early Joe Jackson songs and horn-less versions of some later Jam ones. "Building Skyscrapers in the Basement" opens the album in uneasy quasi-Celtic suspension, with Ida Pearle's violin skittering in eddies, but "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?" surges into something between Weller's "Saturday's Kids" and Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town". "I'm a Ghost" sprawls and slashes and groans, but the jumpy "The High Party" is early Joe Jackson in a hybrid "Sunday Papers"/"Got the Time" mode. "Hearts of Oak" is jittery late-Jam jump-soul, but "The Ballad of the Sin Eater" sounds more like Robyn Hitchcock crossed with Jonathan Richman or Lou Reed. "Dead Voices" sounds to me like middle-period Jam smoothed out by washes of XTC and Lloyd Cole, and "The Anointed One" could be Game Theory doing "David Watts". "Bridges, Squares" has some brash Wonder Stuff breathlessness, while "Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead" lets distinctly Joe Jackson-ish verses goad the choruses through an uncanny pastiche of the Posies' "Flavor of the Month". "2nd Ave, 11am" marches with Hunters & Collectors determination, sparkled by Byrds twang; "First to Finish, Last to Start" paces on slow, spiky Billy Bragg-esque guitars (chastened à la "Valentine's Day Is Over", maybe); "The Crane Takes Flight" keeps Jackson-like vocals but swaps in a percolating rhythm lope and, by the end, a snarly lead guitar, jauntily Life of Brian-grade whistling, and a little more of Pearle's violin.
But what unifies and animates all of this, for me, is Leo's voice. It doesn't just remind me of Jackson and Weller and Bragg's in timbre, it reminds me of them in technique-oblivious enthusiasm. I used to say that if I could take on another human being's singing voice, it would be Ronnie James Dio's, but the truth is that I would never waste a transformational wish that way. My singing voice is none too good, but singers with worse voices have made music I adore. Leo's chief specific asset is a heedless willingness to flip into falsetto at any moment and stay there until the opportunity has passed, but down at the other end of his range he has also mastered a modern-dance-like way of falling into and out of his notes that for me comes off as far more conscious and expressive than the wheezy approximations Dylan has led subsequent generations to associate with grizzled authenticity. And although these songs' lyrics, even when they pass right by my house, read like rhyming-dictionary exercises more often than observational social commentary (although I do like "But I never believed in T.E. Lawrence, / So how the hell could I believe in Beau Gest?"), I find myself granting Leo allowances on the admittedly irrational grounds that he evokes better lyricists, and thus somehow participates in their history without exactly contributing to it himself. And surely, if you don't have the first two or three albums each by Jackson and Bragg and the whole Jam set yet, those would be more enlightening uses of your next few music dollars than this. But then again, if you already do, Weller doesn't make Jam records anymore, and Bragg doesn't really make Bragg ones, and these days Leo probably needs the dollars more.
Joe Jackson Band: Volume 4
Complicating any tactical shopping decision, however, is the fact that while Weller's new records don't sound like the Jam, and Bragg's don't sound like Life's a Riot With Spy Vs. Spy, the new Joe Jackson record actually does sound rather precisely like a return to his old sound. Some of his old collaborators have played on his other records over the years, but this time, perhaps inspired by the success of Night and Day II (at least, I thought it was very successful...), he has recalled his whole original band (drummer Dave Houghton, bassist Graham Maby and guitarist Gary Sanford; the first three volumes this title implies are Look Sharp!, I'm the Man and Beat Crazy) and made an apparently earnest attempt at reconstructing the album they might have made together if Jackson hadn't gotten sidetracked by period covers (Jumpin' Jive), jazz-pop (Night and Day), soundtracks and eventually symphonies. And while this prospect isn't quite as inherently thrilling to me as a Jam reunion might be (I liked Night and Day better than the early records, personally, and already said that I thought Night and Day II was the best album of its year), I certainly figured it had a chance to be amazing.
Except, and I don't think this is just my subjective reaction, the band seems to be intent on not being amazing. What I was expecting, I realize, was not the album they might have made in 1981, but a record made with twenty-two years of hindseen awareness of what they accomplished as kids and what more they might have. I expected a masterpiece they always had in them, Look Sharp!'s electricity in service of Night and Day's gravitas. Instead, this is a record of recaptured youth and unexpected naïveté. The fourth album, it turns out, would have been cheerful and silly and underdeveloped and neither afraid nor necessarily even cognizant of its own potential. It would have started with a sly gender-revenge anthem, "Take It Like a Man", built on twittering piano runs and dryly twitchy drums, taking advantage of Jackson's history of other songs about men to suggest a sexual meaning that these lyrics themselves discreetly don't elaborate. "Still Alive" is a post-breakup survival anthem that would be more uplifting if it didn't sound so drained. "Awkward Age" would be a great title for an endearingly empathetic attempt to reduce the world's troubles by metaphor, but the historical use of "age" doesn't seem to occur to Jackson until the final verse, by which point he's already wasted too much time on bad skin and party fears. The listless "Chrome" isn't bright or shiny at all, and the methodically wistful "Love at First Light" returns to romance with (although I realize this is the point) less perspective than ever, which just feels depressing to me. "Fairy Dust" is over-mannered and over-wahhed, and seems to be fulfilling a contractual obligation to use the word "faggot" at least once on the album. The slapback-buffeted "Little Bit Stupid" makes Joan Jett seem sophisticated. "Blue Flame" can't seem to decide whether it's a lullaby or "Nadia's Theme", and keeps veering away from pop hooks as if terrified of accidentally producing a complete line of coherent melody. "Dirty Martini" and "Thugz 'R' Us" are as embarrassing a diptych as any group of adults have stooped to in my recent memory. And "Bright Grey", in the "Got the Time" anchor position, has the clicky speed but none of the mania. I wanted a new masterpiece from an old band given a new chance; I got a throwaway by a bar band with time to kill.
And maybe the weakness of the new material wouldn't be so obvious if the early copies of this album didn't come with a bonus disc on which the same players crash through six of their original songs in a 2002 concert recording. "One More Time" bucks and surges, the band providing barely-in-tune backing vocals. The crowd gasps involuntarily as "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" starts, and provides enthusiastic "Where?"s in the call-and-response bits; and maybe this is an unlikely classic, but I'd rather hear it again than "I Don't Like Mondays" or "Under Pressure" or anything about vegemite. "On Your Radio" is restless and vital, and the band sprints through "Got the Time" as if they've heard both Anthrax's version and maybe a Devo one that never got released. An unhurried "It's Different for Girls" shows how gracefully these songs can age. A jubilant "I'm the Man" shows how they don't have to.
And those should be the bounds of our problems.