Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - Hearts Of Oak (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists

Hearts Of Oak (2003)


Just to get it out of the way, this album is not as good as 2001's "The Tyranny Of Distance." But, to be fair, what is? I mean, that album was a near-flawless mesh of punk, dub, folk, rock, and pop coupled with Teddy's amazing lyricism, and it is one of the best records I own, hands down. So to expect the man to try and top himself is wholly unfair.

And yet I hoped beyond hope that he could do it with this disc.

Well, like I said, he doesn't, but he comes pretty close, and "Hearts Of Oak" is an excellent companion to "The Tyranny Of Distance." If "TTOD" is an introspective indie rocker at his most vulnerable and exposed, then "HOA" is his older brother who's out of college, re-discovering just how underrated Thin Lizzy was and just how much fun it is to play air guitar. I suppose what that means is this record is a "return of the rock" to Mr. Leo's arsenal.

The majority of these 13 tracks are on the more uptempo side, with a dirty bass rubbing against Ted's guitar licks, seemingly imported from the late 1970's English scene. The Pharmacists sound tighter on this release than on "TTOD," and probably the main reason is because the band has solidified into a constant lineup [one who recorded 99% of the backing parts on this album]. On "Tyranny," instruments were passed around more than a beer bong at a frat party, but Ted seems to have found his permanent Pharmacists, and they are good at what they do.

An excellent addition to his band is the keyboard/organ stylings of Dorien Garry. She brings life to tracks like "The High Party," filling out the sound where otherwise it would have remained empty. Other instrumentation is kept minimal, however, beyond the basic guitar/bass/drums combination.

The title track sounds almost like Radio 4, with auxillary percussion peppered throughout, as well as Ted's guitar being heavy on the reverb. He makes his nu-dub sound better than those Brooklyn hipsters, however, as the song really jams out.

Lyrically, the man still seems to be a tad bit obsessed with water, as the theme pops up throughout this album [just like it did with "Tyranny"]. The lyrics are just as strong as ever, though - the man sure can spin an interesting yarn in just a few minutes' time, one of few modern songwriters who can succeed on this level.

Oh yeah, the vocals - Ted's falsetto is as powerful as ever, and his overall delivery is stronger than it ever has been, as evidenced in "Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?" and the album's bass-and-drums show-stopper, "The Ballad Of The Sin Eater." He even shares vocal duties with Dorien on some of the songs, and it adds a freshness not seen on his last album for the most part.

So where is the fault in the album, then? The disc's biggest drawback is it's apparent one-sidedness. There's a lot of rock on here, and you can shake your ass to a number of these tracks, but as the old saying goes, "variety is the spice of life" and Ted seems to be stuck with just salt and pepper for a big chunk of these tunes. Penultimate track "First to Finish, Last to Start" finally allows just him and a guitar to take over, and it gives me memories of "You Could Die [Or This Might End]" of "TTOD." It's a cool little number leading into the album's closer, the rollicking "The Crane Takes Flight." The use of a violin gives the song a "dancing around the campfire" sort of quality, and I feel like this would be a wonderful singalong in a pub in Ireland somewhere, pints of Guiness swinging back and forth with the beat of the song. But as the album ends, a lot of the middle tracks tend to blend together as one big uptempo 4/4 romp, with no signs of a diversion anywhere.

That being said, this is still a fantastic disc, one anyone would benefit from owning. If you like this, then I can assure you that you'd love "The Tyranny Of Distance." If this was any other year, this record would be a lock for a spot in my Top 10, but there are so many new releases coming out this year, it's going to be tough for Ted and company to see if they have the staying power that their last disc had with me. Only time will tell.

Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?
The High Party