Like a well-deserved punch to the face, a breath of fresh air in a smog-ridden city, or indeed, a good musician amongst a plethora of bad ones, Ted Leo and his illustrious Pharmacists have returned with their Touch & Go debut, Living with the Living. At just over an hour long, the record beats Leo's previous offering, 2004's Shake the Sheets, by a good 20 minutes; "good" being the operative word.
Produced by Fugazi luminary Brendan Canty, the record initially seems fairly similar to the band's previous output: a brief, drum-based intro track, leading straight into an upbeat slice of organic rock 'n roll, "The Sons of Cain." Straight away there's the signature Ted Leo sound: a simple but driving riff, confident bass, and that ever-so-knowingly-executed hook. A little light screaming toward the end and some flagrant abuse of a piano during the breakdown give the track some extra edge, but with these riffs and energy, it's sharp enough already.
Somewhat anti-climactically, the next track, "Army Bound," is a little less energetic, but this doesn't matter because the following song, "Who Do You Love?" is a clear winner, from its falsetto backing vocals to the jerky rhythms. It suffers slightly for its four-minute-plus duration, but with most of the fifteen tracks here being around this length, it's not a huge drawback.
"A Bottle of Buckie" is another standout. From the Celtic-influenced guitar (or is that a mandolin?) licks in the background, to the storytelling lyrics and Irish fiddle melodies, it's another "Timorous Me" for a new generation of listeners. One of Leo's greatest talents is in his expressive vocals, and on this song in particular there's a real personal feel to the words that similar artists attempt to reach and generally fail at.
Up next is the internet-released "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb," and if the name didn't clue you in, it's a political track. Imagine Stephen Colbert mixed with The Dismemberment Plan's Travis Morrison and you have some idea about the lyrics and vocals. Musically, it's an abrasively rhythmic track, with scratchy guitar and aggressive tone, which suits the lyrical tone. Leo's delivery of the line "Sure, we could mobilize a million troops... although a thousand would probably get the job done" is infectiously snidey.
The latter half of the record shows a similarly experimental feel. "Annunciation Day / Born on Christmas Day," apparently a tale of Leo's childhood experience of war, reaches an almost Queen-esque crescendo in its climax, despite featuring a particularly impassioned "and not even the government knows what the fuck it's for!" earlier on. "The Unwanted Things" is a dub/reggae track that's akin to The Specials with tighter production. "La Costa Brava" is a beautiful semi laid-back track with some more heartfelt vocals. One of Leo's standout features is his ability to wrench the notes from his vocals and the chords on his guitar that really seem to convey emotion as opposed to empty sentiment. The closing portion of the song features repeating vocals reminiscent of "Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?" on Hearts Of Oak: a definite success.
Three of the final five tracks are over six minutes long, but fear not; it isn't prog. What it is is a little less clear. Most of the songs feature the extended outros of 2003's Hearts Of Oak which seems a conscious decision when considering the group's previous offering, Shake the Sheets, which showed a much more cut-down and concise form.
Leo and his Pharmacists seem to be perpetually on tour, and have evidently perfected their craft through their rigorous schedule. The fifteen songs on Living with the Living show a desire to experiment and seem to possess a freedom perhaps restricted on Shake the Sheets. While some songs could have been more economically edited, the end result is still a particularly good album of modern upbeat rock and roll with the appropriate influences and the energy and sincerity that so many of their peers lack. Leo, master of the hook, sings "every little memory has a song" in "The Lost Brigade," and his knack for writing lyrics and melodies that you find buzzing around your brain days later makes this line even more accurate.
Unlike other bands that see themselves as destroyers of the Bush administration with carefully crafted sloganeering, Leo's political awareness is deeper and somewhat darker than his peers. His energy gives way to anger sometimes, righteous anger that was the stuff of the Billy Braggs and Joe Strummers back in the day. Leo knows the revolution won't be televised, but as long as he and his Pharmacists keep cranking out songs, we can at least dance to the sounds of the system's destruction.
Finally, to ruin the sentiment of that last line, the first pressings of Living with the Living include a free six-track bonus disc, which includes a cover of UK anarchists Chumbawamba. Ted Leo: the motherfucking man.
8.4 / 10
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