Life as an underdog has its perks. You can piss where you want to, sleep when you want to and, while underground zealots might anticipate a few impressive tricks, no one expects you to sink a free-throw with your snout like some Letterman-worthy superpooch.
Ted Leo is no longer the official underdog of American indie rock. He's been on Conan, for chrissake. If he's hungry now, it's because of pressure that articles in SPIN, Rolling Stone and various hyperbolic "genius" accolades have laid upon him and his band of crackpot noisemakers, The Pharmacists.
One reviewer admits to being a "slobbering fanboy." Another opens with a letter to readers begging them to buy Leo's new album, Hearts of Oak, explaining the album made her come out of pseudo-retirement as a rock critic.
So why all the buzz about a 32-year-old, balding New Jersey native who's relished unpopularity for 15-plus years? Because Ted Leo is the sort of hyperbole-inspiring underdog whose sociopolitical narratives, sloppy technical skill and virally contagious indie-punk-pop songs turn otherwise aloof music snobs into slobbering fanboys.
Leo's small circle of renown began with Chisel, the mod-punk band he fronted in the early '90s. It was through Chisel that Leo became a peer of Washington, D.C. poobahs like Fugazi and Dismemberment Plan, as well as artier post-punks of guitar-squalling fame, Blonde Redhead.
Leo's worst habit-homelessness-began when Chisel broke up after two albums. He galavanted for a spell as the guitarist for The Spinanes, started a short-lived band with his brother called The Sin Eaters and released a few solo albums. Like Ari Fleischer, he's good at what he does but is either too smart or too opportunistic to hold down a steady job.
With 2001's The Tyranny of Distance, however, Leo began to coalesce with what looked like and smelled like a real band. No one seemed to question Leo's talent-a Kinksian descendant who ménage a triosed with pop and indie rock, the love children of which were power-pop songs to play in your snobbiest record store. Yet even Tyranny sounded like a solo project plus pals, Leo the man-with-the-plan soccer dad gripping the wheel with both hands.
With Hearts of Oak, Leo and the Pharmacists sound like an actual nuclear unit, not yet stricken with psychological sibling damage but with enough time together to develop nascent ESP and know that knowing when not to speak is just as invaluable as knowing when to scream your fucking lungs out.
As much as Leo's been touted as the post-millenial Joe Strummer-a working man's populist with an aggressive wit who isn't afraid to give the George Dubyas of the world a metaphoric knuckle sandwich-he's hardly a poli-sci grad with a case of Tourrettes.
"The Annointed One" does throw a stink bomb into the Oval Office when Leo sings, "In the capitol, with your freezer full/ do you represent your district/ or your daddy's will?" One can only assume that the freezer's full of Dead Kennedys, Black Flags and other archival punks who spoke out against Dumbya's predecessors in the Imperialistic House of International Displeasure. Leo doesn't carry the torch of politi-punk legacy; his small jabs are more like tossing tiny gunpowder poppers at the feet of usual suspects.
Yet while Leo's more concerned with long, walkaday narratives than revolutionary hearsay, when he does mount the soapbox it's that much more effective because, on the surface, these are just rowdy pop songs.
Pretty. Attractive. Pleasing to the touch.
It's like building flowers made of nitroglycerine that detonate when twitterpated listeners sniff to smell his particular roses.
Leo writes Beat poetry for the indie-rock crowd. He's an educated, liberal white dude with obsessive-compulsive wordiness that often produces extended, rambling narratives like Jack Kerouac's On the Road. He even dips into Medieval Latin in the passages of "I'm a Ghost," with a warning to the living that the specters of conscience are makin' a list and checkin' it twice: "I'm a ghost/ so it don't matter what I know/ and you won't mind if I don't speak/ "comme il faut' but you've been caught "in flagrante delicto'/ and the ghosts are lining up outside your door."
No matter he's got the same case of Montezuma's Mouthy Revenge that Henry Rollins has proven can be a chronic ailment; Leo applies his long wind with a finesse that only guitar-playing songwriters can. Like U-Haul's principal truck designer would be able to pack that puppy like a Tetris master, Leo stuffs what seems like a lifetime of rambling observation into 13 songs without sacrificing the almighty hook.
But then again, this isn't just any Chatty Cathy-this is Ted Leo, the former American underdog who inspires hyperbole and leaves lustful, slobbering fanboys in his wake, even if his impermanence suggests he'll quit The Pharmacists before it gets really, really good.