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Up from the semiunderground

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You hear about guys like Ted Leo every year during the World Series or the Super Bowl. Dudes who have been around, played the field from every angle, who have accrued a lifetime of experience and props from teammates, but who’ve never been to the big dance. They’re called journeymen — for both their nomadic nature and their versatility — and they’re the perpetual underdogs of the sports world.

New Jersey songwriter Leo is just such a player. Far from the harsh glare of the mainstream media klieg lights, he’s carved out a nearly 15-year career making the music he loves for the reasons he wants.

After coming up in the ’80s in the East Coast hardcore scene, he went on to front the semilegendary outfit Chisel. (Well, semilegendary in the semiunderground emo and indie-rock scene — which probably means that neither your younger brother nor your older brother has heard of them.) He spent some time as a touring guitarist in the quiet confines of the poetic folk-pop outfit the Spinanes before staying on the road as a solo artist, honing his own stuff preparing for a hectic past two years garnering critical adulation and steadily gaining fans.

So now that the (literal) journeyman has a chance to look back on all the travel, what kind of insight does he bring to the team?

“That’s tough to say. The amount of travel I / we’ve been doing gives you a polar opposite that you’re tapping into,” he says. “One is the obvious that you’re traveling and discerning similarities and differences. But traveling in the context of touring means you’re playing your songs every day — and that’s actually good for me over the last couple years. I was able to verbalize some things that were a little more amorphous. I was able to focus for more of every day on the ‘craft’ than I otherwise would.”

So it’s a bit of a monastic thing?

“Well, a drunken monastic thing! A Trappist monastic thing.”

And now the hardcore-bred, punk-weaned and indie-world-adored 32-year-old is poised to get his best crack at the bigs. Tuesday marked the release of his second solo record, Hearts of Oak — a rollicking collection of tunes that ruminate on place, politics both personal and otherwise, and regret. Hell, he starts the record off with a challenge — a bittersweet, melancholy soundscape over which he sings, “I know some things I’d rather not / Like the time ahead is all the time you’ve got,” forcing us to make the conscious choice to really sit and listen or move along.

Critics from Spin to little tiny Web zines have already started gushing over it. And rightfully so. If this were a record review, I’d probably be busting syntactic break dance moves trying to get to the core of Hearts of Oak.

But the words the critics are using are startling. Leo’s 2001 record, Tyranny of Distance (a line cribbed from a great Split Enz song I, ironically, first heard while watching a Wiggles video with my toddler, but I digress), married mod style to angry-young-man idealism and songcraft (see also Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello) and Thin Lizzy Celt-rock swagger. Early words being used to describe Hearts of Oak are taking it a step further, comparing Leo to some of his heroes such as Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg and Joe Strummer. As it is, I’m compelled to tell you that Hearts of Oak is the most go-for-broke record I’ve heard in ages. Leo and bandmates Chris Wilson (drums), Dave Lerner (bass) and Dorien Garry (keyboard) have worked these songs into a so-tight-they’re-loose froth, all full of incidental percussion and rhythm enough to make any hip shake. And on top of it Leo lays it all on the line — at times stretching his voice into an uncomfortable register to get in the center of a song’s drama, at others rattling off details like a beat poet or hammering his six-string like a guitar hero.

To continue the meta-torture, then, may I propose that Ted Leo is a throwback player in the indie-rock world — someone whose music rails against the very balkanization of music that once enveloped Chisel at its popular peak.

See, Leo’s music embodies the spirit of the original DIY scene from the early ’80s when there weren’t established networks of clubs that would get behind this music. In this environment, kids had to be a lot more active in seeking out music that they could connect to and, as a result, the music kids latched onto wasn’t nearly as niched-out and insular as the precious navel-gazing indie-rock scene is today.

“I think that the things that people do like about rock music and punk rock are there,” says Leo. “But the funny thing is when we’ve toured with bigger indie or punk bands I find that the kids who are into the more aggro political stuff tend to give us more of a chance than the strictly indie or emo fans.”

“We understand the connections between the political kids — for example, the kids who go to shows at warehouses or house parties as opposed to the ones who might only go to shows at rock clubs. I’m happy that there’s a spirit that appeals to them,” he says.

Hearts of Oak opens with a call for the return of such an inclusive make-your-own spirit. “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone,” invokes (namechecks, in fact) the early ’80s “Two-Tone” ska movement that saw multiracial, multicultural bands bust the punk genre open with a wide-reaching melting pot of sounds, potent protest music and jubilant beats.

More than just another pop-punk songwriter, Leo lays out his sounds employing the vocabulary of blue-eyed soul, Celtic folk, power pop, talking blues, folk and even hints of dub reggae. And somehow he makes it all come together.

Case in point is Hearts of Oak’s centerpiece tune “The Ballad of the Sin Eater” — a punk-rock take on talking blues that follows a wayward American traveler across the globe as he’s chased, kicked, beaten and self-abused in every culture upon which he alights. The chorus? “You didn’t think they could hate you now, did ya / Oh, but they hate you / they hate you cuz you’re guilty.”

It’s as politically hardcore as consciousness reggae and as dryly humorous as Guthrie and Ochs. It’s a blank slate of a specific narrative that takes on extra weight given America’s current status as global bully.

“Those are things that I listen to regularly and it is a conscious effort to incorporate them,” says Leo. “What got me to the point that I could write a song stylistically like “Ballad of the Sin Eater,” was incorporating enough folkie, Woody Guthrie, Billy Bragg, straightforward narrative that says something specific but gets to the universal center.

“I understand that the tradition that that comes out of is folk and the reggae traditions like Linton Kwesi Johnson — even though it may not sound like it, it’s there,” he says.

And that lies at the core of it for Leo. Actually saying something is an all too rare occurrence.

“For modern rock — myself included — it’s really hard to get the balls to be specific about anything. Not that it’s a courageous thing to do in society or anything in the larger picture. I mean, I’m not writing to exorcise pain or anything. This is my craft. I actually enjoy making music.”

So, whaddya say we drop the sports metaphor? I just didn’t want you to get through the first couple paragraphs and think “Ho-hum. He’s writing about another indie rocker. Next.”

 

Ted Leo & the Pharmacists perform Friday, Feb. 21 at Small’s in Hamtramck with Saturday Looks Good to Me and Kevin Boyer. Call 313-873-1117 for information.

Chris Handyside writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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