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Ted Leo/Pharmacists' socially consciousness social music

Wielding his guitar with all the exuberance of a marching band conductor's baton, pub-punk troubadour Ted Leo has been leading his tightly wound Pharmacists around the country for several years now. Leo -- the oldest in a musical family that includes brothers Chris (Native Nod/the Van Pelt/the Lapse) and Danny (Native Nod/the Holy Childhood) -- is no stranger to the road. He's been busking to a martial beat since the early '90s, when he was in the band Chisel. But with the release of 2001's The Tyranny of Distance and especially this year's Hearts of Oak, Leo's been quite the fixture on the indie circuit, bringing his music and message to the people with increasing intensity.

Using mod as a filter, Leo has developed an elastic compound part rock-steady and part soulful shimmy, with a twitching skitter like a rattlesnake. It's a sound often compared to Paul Weller, the Clash, Billy Bragg, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, the Minutemen and Curtis Mayfield, among others -- influences whose re-occurring mentions Leo considers his one PR coup.

If Leo's influences seem across the board, that's nothing compared to his living arrangements. Since attending college in Indiana, he's split his time between couches across the country while establishing, at one point or another, semi-permanent bases in New York, Boston and D.C. His most recent relocation -- this time back to his New Jersey hometown -- inspired the reflective mood of Hearts of Oak.

Leo was living in D.C. when he wrote The Tyranny of Distance, an album whose references to home and the sea were the result of him looking back on his Northeast upbringing and addressing his current feelings of displacement. Writing Hearts of Oak while in New Jersey, on the other hand, Leo felt more at home and was able to move away from navel-gazing and create what he considers a more outward-looking record.

"[The Tyranny of Distance] was about trying to find your place in an immediate sense -- within a relationship, geographically, etc. -- while [Hearts of Oak] is more about questioning your place in a grander sense," Leo says. "If the [old] one is more about finding an immediate place, the new one is more concerned with the gradual act of finding your dharma -- are you an artist, what does that mean, when and how will you achieve your goals?"

Despite its seemingly jocular jangle, Hearts of Oak carries some weighty musings. "If there's another war -- another shitty war to fight for Babylon," Leo sings in his soaring quiver in "The High Party." "Then it's the perfect storm in a teacup. But you must drink it down." An examination/critique of American foreign policy, "The Ballad of the Sin Eater" contains the scathing chorus, "You didn't think they could hate you now, did you?" And "Tell Balgeary, Balgury is Dead" calls on "the majors to end this general despair" of "no end in sight to this darkening night." But while titles such as "I'm a Ghost" and "Dead Voices" imply otherwise, the songs themselves remain lively. And despite the dense verbiage, Leo keeps in mind those less concerned with an impressive vocabulary and more concerned with the visceral.

"When you're young, people tend to go to one extreme or the other," Leo says. "It's either, 'We gotta go do this to make money now!' or, 'Fuck money, dude, I'm playing just to have a good time.' And in terms of politics, it's usually either apathy or activism. The good thing about the older perspective is learning how to balance those extremes."

tony.ware@creativeloafing.com

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