When Ted Leo & The Pharmacists released their fourth album, Shake the Sheets, there was talk of it being more of a `punk’ record than its predecessor Hearts of Oak. The primary reason for using this description was that the band, previously a five-piece, had slimmed down to three, stripping the TLRX sound down to its basic guitar-bass-drum essentials. Yet still carrying the same Thin Lizzy and Dexys Midnight Runners influence of Hearts, it wasn’t a very typical punk album at all, but a leaner version of Leo’s already well-established rock style. On album number five, Living With the Living, the Pharmacists remain a trio, but with a three year interval and a new label, the band sounds more expansive and confident as a trio, giving us yet another solid release.
With fifteen songs and an hour-long running time, Living is a huge record, Leo & Co. going in almost as many different directions as there are tracks. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call it the band’s most diverse record to date, even though each style is tackled in a more straightforward fashion than the more grand arrangements of The Tyranny of Distanace. On “The Unwanted Things,” the band tries their hand at reggae, while “Bottle of Buckie” incorporates Irish folk and “Bomb. Repeat. Bomb.” takes a much more aggressive and, um, punk approach. “The Toro and the Toreador” finds the Pharmacists playing something of a power ballad, and what’s even more surprising, “Toro” is one of three (!) songs that stretch past six minutes, making the second half of the album the longer and more epic of the two.
Among all the varying styles on Living, the most noteworthy tracks are those that balance Leo’s melodic songwriting with propulsive, powerful rock. Opener “The Sons of Cain” is such a song, skipping along on catchy riffs and tambourine, Leo singing with all earnestness, “I’ve got to sing just to exist.” The more politically charged “Army Bound” features a riff reminiscent of The Kinks’ “Victoria,” while Leo turns his unease into clever rhymes: “In every cradle there’s a grave now/ in every owner there’s a slave now.” “Who Do You Love?” is more of a Clash-inspired rocker, a little more Mick Jones than Joe Strummer in its melodic sweetness. And on that note, it’s hard not to think of London Calling when listening to this set, both in sound and in its epic sprawl. It doesn’t have the same revolutionary context, nor is it as flawless, but good on Ted for giving it a shot.
The pretty pop standout “Colleen” is a treat, one of Leo’s best songs to date, one to play on repeat for sure, as is “La Costa Brava,” a simple, but pretty new waver with themes of escape and optimism rather than political diatribes like “Bomb. Repeat. Bomb.” That particular song is the most abrasive here, and suffers because of it. When surrounded by such melodic wonders, it only falls flat. By comparison, the lengthy closer “C.I.A.”, which, in lines like “C.I.A., only you know what you’ve done,” displays more government directed cynicism, sounds surprisingly more celebratory and emotional. Even a protest song can be presented in a pretty package, and nobody knows this better than Ted Leo.
Though an exhausting listen, Living With the Living is no less of a satisfying one. Leo’s once again puts his songwriting talent on display, offering several essential songs in the process. There are a few non-essential ones as well, and a little editing wouldn’t have hurt. Ted Leo and The Pharmacists’ ambition is nonetheless admirable, yielding yet another great album.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.