What Makes the Walk Worth it
The initial response to The Brutalist Bricks is something akin to coming home after a long trip. It's all familiar, everything is just where you left it, but somehow, it all still feels so strange--comfortable, yet fresh and new at the same time. It's a feeling that fans of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are quite used to by this point.
Leo has spent the past ten years perfecting his own concoction of neo-mod indie-punk without ever falling back on a predictable formula. It's this that's earned him an almost unassailable respect among hip-shakers of all stripes. And while most other indie artists who dare to tackle the sticky realm of politics are bound to face the cry of "preachy," Leo's intelligence and personability have kept such accusations well at bay.
The Brutalist Bricks sees none of these elements fading anytime soon. While it may not be the strongest Pharmacists album to date, it nonetheless remains a rock-solid effort. Leo is playing with a smaller palette here, but after the wide expanse of Living With the Living, almost any followup is going to seem restrained.
True to form, Bricks is an album whose dynamics have been delicately balanced. The Jam-style crunch is laid on thick throughout most songs without ever slighting the value of a great pop hook. Leo's voice bounces effortlessly between wailing testimonial and angelic innocence. And the Pharmacists--guitarist James Canty, drummer Chris Wilson and bassist Marty Key--hold things down with a mixture that can positively be described as controlled chaos.
This kind of emotional and musical range captures what no small number of Americans must be feeling right now. Like most folks, Leo was excited about the prospects of the new administration, but unlike many other artists who threw their hat Obama's ring, he didn't consider the election an end-game. The statement on his website the day after the elections read "Deep breath... Feel good... Recognize and appreciate the significance... And let's get down to work!"
In other words, Leo gets the wonky mix of anger, frustration and hope that runs through the era of the Great Recession. In "Woke Up Near Chelsea," he reminds us repeatedly that "we are born of despair," but also that "we long for what's fair." The tense, piano-inflected rabble rouser is The Brutalist Bricks in a nutshell:
"Cold in the bones, rot in the teeth
Alone in the home, out in the street
All that you've grown, choked in the weeds
But older than stone, that's you and me"
Leo clearly has no time for cynics--indeed, he says so outright on "Ativan Eyes," easily the album's most infectious song. His infinitely refreshing faith in people is personified by his refusal to paint them with a simple brush. This is no doubt why he's dodged the normally inevitable eye-rolls that get directed at "political" artists. To him, the personal and political are bound to bleed into one another.
This has always been true of Leo's work, but while past albums like Shake the Sheets and Hearts of Oak relied a lot more on metaphor, Bricks' more outspoken moments seem to go for the jugular much more than we may be used to.
Acerbic lines like "the new millennium's tough, for some more than others (ridiculous understatement)" work in a one-on-one setting just as well as if they were delivered at a rally in front of Bank of America. Moreover, they're peppered throughout subjects that could easily be mistaken as much more pedestrian: love, loneliness, heartache.
Some are clearly uncomfortable with this kind of match-up. Pitchfork's Paul Thompson calls it "sandwich-board fodder."
"The otherwise lovely 'Ativan Eyes' begins with a too-clever nod to Marx" says Thompson. "'The industry's out of touch / The means of production are now in the hands of the workers' just isn't a line that belongs in a pop tune, particularly one that implores someone to lay their hands on Leo just a couple of stanzas later."
His stereotype of the po-faced Marxist aside, Thompson's criticism misses the entire point! If pop music is ever to reclaim its mantle as truly "popular" in this day and age, then artists need to be unafraid to inject a little bit of outright radicalism into their songs as they tap into popular sentiment--even if such injections might come off as a bit tongue-in-cheek.
Contrary to what some nay-sayers may insist, the starkness of these types of moments is what makes them work. Fewer songs on Bricks could be labeled "political" songs, but the ever-present sense of subversiveness makes the more blunt moments hit even harder.
"Mourning in America" gives the listener the feeling of being thrown in a cement mixer with a box of rusty nails. The sense of furious impatience is undeniable here--from the fuzzed-out bass and stutter-step drums to the wind-tunnel guitar work--as Leo lays out a vitriolic indictment of American conservatism:
"You summon ghosts we tried to bury in their white shrouds
With burning cross and bloody crescent in the White House
You come on something like the faces I remember
1980 Mississippi rising from the ash and embers
"Never now can I imagine me forgiving you
Never now can I imagine how to live with you
Another warning from the lake of people bleeding
There will be mourning in America if you keep it up"
Anyone sick of Glenn Beck and his Teabagging minions will find some well-needed catharsis in this song.
Taken altogether, The Brutalist Bricks is an effective continuation of what Leo and the Pharmacists have brought to the indie scene. His send-off back in '04 was "there's a whole lot walking to do," and while that's certainly still true, Leo hasn't let up in reminding us that there is also a whole lot that makes the walk worth it. This album leaves you feeling a lot of things, but hollow definitely isn't one of them.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com). He is a columnist for the Society of Cinema and Arts, and a contributor to Z Magazine, Socialist Worker, New Politics and the International Socialist Review.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.