On his new album, Hearts of Oak (Lookout), Ted Leo doesn't just wear his influences on his sleeve--he drops their names into the lyrics. On "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?" he yearns for the racial harmony embraced by the British two-tone movement, expressing his love for the Specials in a catchy chorus: "I asked Jerry / He told Terry / Terry sang a song just for me / Lynvall gave a message to me." Though Leo's music contains no trace of ska, it's steeped in the British punk of that era--from his longtime mod models the Jam to angry popsters like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson--and it shares some of that music's righteous defiance. Leo, who led the neo-mod D.C. trio Chisel for much of the 90s, has always had a way with a melody, but with his latest band, the Pharmacists, he's developed a sound that's more his own. His guitar lines slash and seethe over terse bass and drum grooves, and his furious singing carries the music--he'll stretch one syllable across four beats or cram ten words into just a couple bars, and when he wants to drive a particular point home his voice careens into a raw but pleasing falsetto. (Though he's clearly gunning for Curtis Mayfield, he sounds more like Game Theory's Scott Miller to me.) There's an electric tension between his melodies and the band's jagged instrumental attack, and his politics are particularly timely on "The Ballad of the Sin Eater," a tale of an ugly American in Europe: "And you didn't think they could hate you, now did you?" Watchers, a local band who work a more skillful variation on postpunk's funky throb than much-hyped east-coast groups like the Seconds and Radio 4, open. Saturday, February 22, 10 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 773-276-3600. Leo will give a free in-store performance at 4:30 PM the same day at Reckless Records, 1532 N. Milwaukee; 773-235-3727.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Pete Kerlin.