Ted Leo is from Jungleland. It’s a place where populism and smarts are not mutually exclusive, where soul and rock mingle. And where guys like John Fogerty, Joe Strummer, Minutemen’s D. Boon, and, above all, Bruce Springsteen make sense of a jumbled world by telling their stories–tales of everyday heroism and tragedy–with so much honest humor you realize that they’re your stories, too.
After ten years on the road with a variety of punk and indie-rock bands (most notably Chisel), Leo went solo a few years ago.Hearts of Oak, the follow-up to 2001’s The Tyranny of Distance, fuses two of the most potent gospels rock has ever produced: the radical guitar furor of D.C. punk and the Celtic soul of Thin Lizzy and Dexy’s Midnight Runners. This is Leo’s first release with a consistent lineup of Pharmacists–Tyrannymarched to the beat of five different drummers–and it shows. The songs are flat-out rollicking, like what Fugazi might come up with if their tour-van radio got stuck on the classic-rock station. Leo’s lyrical voice is sharper, too. “The Ballad of the Sin Eater” follows an ugly American on a tour of uglier global hot spots;”Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” is a loving ode to the Specials with a chorus–“I asked Jerry / He told Terry / Terry sang a song just for me”–that lionizes ska as a vanished multiracial utopia.
Whether or not Leo remains contextually confined to the so-called indie slums, his horizon reaches far beyond the basement. He’s a full-on romantic who’s seen “the glory of the fields of flowers and factory floors.” Blue collars, white collars, bookworms, and barflies–he’s got a song for every one of you.