Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. Tell Balgeary, Balgury is Dead EP (Lookout!, 2003)

"And your crying won't make you a dime/ It's just like any other job where they're gonna pay you for your time."

What's not to love about Ted Leo? Not only does he seem like a genuinely nice dude, smart and passionately political without being a jerk about it, but he's one of the most blindingly talented songwriters out there right now, with an incredibly well-developed sense of timing and melody and hands that sound like they were born holding a guitar. After infusing the somewhat self-serious DC postpunk scene of the '90s with some welcome levity in the jumped-up mod-revival outfit Chisel, he set out to singlehandedly save rock and roll with the Pharmacists, reminding indie nerds everywhere that Thin Lizzy were awesome and cranking out album after album (The Tyranny of Distance, Hearts of Oak, Shake the Sheets, and, most recently, 2006's Living with the Living) of mind-blowing hit parades.

Like virtually everything else Ted Leo has released (with the glaring exception of his very first Pharmacists release, the experimental bedroom bummout Tej Leo(?), Rx/Pharmacists, about which the least said the better), the 2003 EP Tell Balgeary, Balgury is Dead is solidly top shelf. The roaring title track, originally from the classic Hearts of Oak LP, is the only full-band offering in the set, with the rest of the collection dedicated to stripped down guitar-and-vocals takes on Ted Leo originals and a few well chosen covers. It's basically Ted Leo going Back to Basics, Billy Bragg style, armed only with his axe and his voice. And guess what? It's great, and exhibits Leo's innate ability to simultaneously rip out stunning guitar lines (which sound like they're being played on some sort of semi-hollow electric, like a Gibson ES or a Gretsch) while belting out his always-memorable vocal parts in an electrifyingly youthful tenor.

The solo versions of the originals shine a fresh light on some already strong material. "The High Party" alternates between slithering lead lines and chugging rhythm, Leo handling both while also dealing with the complex vocal duties. It's a pretty stunning display, as the original album version (from Hearts of Oak) is a multi-part mini-epic with handful of movements; Leo juggles it all here, alone, without breaking a sweat. "Bleeding Powers," which would eventually show up in full-band form on 2004's Shake the Sheets, is a rousing ballad that finds Leo wearing his Celtic roots on his clover green sleeve; when the twin solos rear their cranky heads a minute in (Leo on left speaker, Dan Littleton on right), things get thrillingly twisted.

"Sword in the Stone" and "Loyal to My Sorrowful Country" are Tell Balgeary's two original cuts, and both are impressive. "Sword in the Stone," especially: over a chunky, Townsend-esque chord progression and a glaringly sunny vocal melody, Leo caustically cuts a pretender down to size. "And if that's all you make of your time," Leo spits, "Then I'm not wasting anymore explaining what I've made of mine." At the 1:27 mark, the foot-stamping temper tantrum of a solo comes in, making mincemeat of the speakers. "Loyal to My Sorrowful Country" is a tuneful, biting protest anthem: "In the days when we were young, we were free, we were free/ With each new day that's begun, we won't be, we can't be, so/ No more shall I be loyal to my sorrowful country." It's a roaring monster with a sad heart of glass, the choppy chords underscoring the indignant rage.

Three covers are sprinkled throughout the EP, and each one makes perfect sense. The Pogues' "Dirty Old Town" is given a loving treatment (complete with an amplified, tangled jangle of a solo), as is Paul Weller's "Ghosts." And a spare version of "Six Months In a Leaky Boat" is a better introduction to New Zealand's Split Enz than, frankly, the Split Enz -- occasionally brilliant, too often clever to the point of abstraction -- could provide. In Leo's hands, "Leaky Boat" goes from new-wave bauble to hook-filled diamond in the dirt, and is all the better for it.

Tell Balgeary, Balgury is Dead is far more than a placeholder between LPs. It's a generous 30-minute testament to Leo's considerable skills as a songwriter, guitarist, and interpreter. And at this point, I'm fairly convinced that Ted Leo can do no wrong. As long as he stays away from the ambient noise experimentations. Those are terrible, Ted.