Sunday, June 13, 2010

Album Review: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - The Tyranny of Distance

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: The Tyranny of Distance
[Lookout! 2001]


While the official beginnings of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are credited to the highly experimental album tej leo (?), Rx / pharmacists, which is actually the solo work of Ted Leo, the band originally out of D.C. that indie and especially political punk rockers know and love can first be heard on 2001’s The Tyranny of Distance. Not as political as the following albums Shake the Sheets and Living With the Living, The Tyranny of Distance still showcases the quite personal lyrics of Leo as well as the band’s uncanny skill in crafting smart, catchy choruses and hooks that always sound fresh and new. That said, behind the pop rock stylings of the band’s lyricism and melodies is the ever present force in their music, as is shown in the un-softened power of the electric guitar and Leo’s dynamic vocal styles.

Compared to later releases, The Tyranny of Distance tends to follow more mainstream rock melodies that hint at the faster, more punk oriented fierceness in Ted Leo’s future. Perhaps if it weren’t for the raw sounding production of James Canty and Leo’s rocking guitar work, their knack for extended guitar riffs, and the band’s independent record label, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists would be on the radio. Most of The Tyranny of Distance is quite radio friendly in that above all else, Ted Leo’s songs emphasize extremely catchy hooks that make songs, as individuals, stand out tremendously.

The first three songs here capture the band’s range of rock very well, starting out the very catchy “Biomusicology,” which is instantly one of the best songs on the album. Leo’s trademark falsetto vocals accentuate the wonderful meandering melody perfect as violins complement dynamic drumming (drumming duties are shared here by Brendan Canty, Danny Leo, and Seb Thompson). “Parallel or Together?” showcases an energetic, purely punk rock drumbeat that is tempered by Leo’s now-subdued, multi-layered vocals. “Under the Hedge” returns us to track one’s territory with a soaring chorus, galloping verses and probably the widest vocal range for Leo on the album. All three songs characterize the band as not quite fitting into mainstream rock, pop rock, and punk rock categories in-and-of-themselves.

Lyrically, Ted Leo is not quite at the agitated liberal punk stage that his Shake the Sheets-period songwriting will strongly convey. Nevertheless, when applicable, his passionate vocals reflect each song’s varying degree of angst and calm superbly. The songs here tend to describe personal observations: “Biomusicology” aims to praise the importance of music in life, “Timorous Me” notes the constant cycle of making new friends and moving apart from old ones, and “Squeaky Fingers” seems to describes how each town the band travels through takes on the kind of unnamed, identical character of the town before it.

Whether extending their sound with 6+ minute songs or crafting short and contained tunes, such as the beautiful acoustic guitar and cello of “The Gold Finch and the Red Oak Tree,” the band accomplishes to bring memorable choruses and melodies to each outing. On the downside, however, the longer songs tend to repeat what is already a clear musical idea and rather than take the song into unexplored depths, the repetition can at times come across as a tad boring and lazy.

Overall, the band should take pride in the fact that just about every song on the album has a potent sticking point in its memorable hooks and solid instrumentation, varying from light pop rock songs to punk-driven anthems. For the various influences shown in The Tyranny of Distance, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists create a truly unique brand of radio-friendly indie rock.

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