If great American songwriters like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen had grown up in the east coast post-hardcore scene of the late 1980s they probably would have sounded a lot like Ted Leo. With their fifth release, Leo and his Pharmacists offer the enjoyable Living with the Living, an album that covers all the musical bases.
Upon its surface, Living is an upbeat, fun album with plenty of songs that could easily shuffle in and out of your iPod DJ rig at a party -- without your tone-deaf roommate scurrying toward the computer to press that pesky double-right arrow. With further diagnosis however, you would hear that Leo isn't just a party-starter -- he's a thinker as well, as displayed repeatedly throughout his lyric sheets and song structures.
After a short intro track, Living launches into "The Sons of Cain," which perfectly highlights all of Leo and The Pharmacists best attributes: diverse instrumentation, soaring melodies and focused, tight musicianship.
In the Joe Strummer-ish "Army Bound" Leo's thoughtful lyrics shine, showing the ups and downs of serving one's country ("in every cradle there's a grave now / in every owner there's a slave now").
While Leo may be a singer/songwriter at heart, he can also play the hell out of a guitar and he doesn't try to hide that fact. There are many searing, fuzz-drenched scale-climbers scattered throughout Living that add an old rock 'n' roll feel to some of the more experimental tracks.
The Pharmacists channel the Beatles in "Colleen," an unapologetic pop song that is sweeter than your little brother's breakfast cereal. Leo somehow manages to find over 20 words that rhyme with Colleen, while remaining to be unpredictable and also sticking to the storyline.
"A Bottle of Buckie" is a drinking song that could make the Pope break down, grab a double-deuce of Old Style, bong it and then smash the empty can against his funny hat.
"Bomb.Repeat.Bomb" is the oddest song of the bunch, with its sporadic guitars cutting through the backbeat like surgical steal, while Leo does his best spoken word impersonation via the verses before exploding into a retro-rock chorus reminiscent of the White Stripes or the Hives.
The Pharmacists get dub-ish on "The Unwanted Things," funky on the seven-and-a-half minute "The Lost Brigade," and intimate with "The Toro and Toreador," which begins with over two minutes of just Leo's vocals and a tremolo-soaked guitar, then explodes into something that Hendrix may have written if he had lived past the age of 27.
The highlight of the album is the laid-back, sunny "La Costa Brava." Every time I hear it I long to be on the highway, windows down on a summer night, headed nowhere in particular, but just happy to be moving. Leo fully utilizes all six minutes of the song, drawing out verses with the steady palm-mute of his trusty Gibson ES-335, and getting all nostalgic about some places in Spain he's visited that he'd like you to see too.
Living lasts a full hour with its 15 tracks, which may be a bit much for some people in one listen, and there are a few throwaway tracks, truth be told. However, the material is so diverse that it's closer to a well-made mix CD rather than your standard full-length; and when the songs are this good, it's easy to live with.