Thirty-five years ago, the protest song was at its peak. Vietnam had taken the life of many an American soldier and that had stirred up a fair amount of anger back home, inspiring many a musician to find a way to inject politics into song. Though they felt obligated to speak their mind about the sorry state of affairs, they did so while executing their primary goal — to write good songs. Never before had a political statement been as blatantly widespread in pop music, and for that, some say that pop music has never been quite as potent as it was in the late `60s.
Today, however, we’re faced with a similar problem. U.S. troops occupy Iraq for questionable reasons, Americans are being force-fed fear through a color-coded “warning” systems and the so-called “president” has done little to improve our country and much to destroy the freedoms and privileges we enjoy as American citizens. For these reasons, pop musicians have taken it upon themselves to follow in the footsteps of the great troubadours of the `60s and do more than entertain. They want to make a difference.
For many, especially those on the Future Soundtrack For America compilation, the sentiment is made more digestable by good songwriting. Yet, lesser bands like NOFX and Good Charlotte have also joined the party, contributing their own statements, albeit packaged in a mall-punk fashion. While a lot of what’s out there focuses on substance more than style, it can be hard to find a perfect balance. But if I were to guide you to only one politically-motivated artist this election season, it would have to be Ted Leo.
Ted Leo is no stranger to politics. In 2000, he sang about the AIDS crisis in “Treble in Trouble,” took on the dilemma of having a birthday on September 11th in “The High Party” and sang of the widespread anti-American sentiment in “Ballad of the Sin-Eater.” In Shake the Sheets, Leo’s latest, his message is more clear and pointed — we’re being fucked by our current administration.
Slimmed to a power trio, Leo and the Pharmacists have taken a more straightforward approach, doing away with most of the dense flourishes of The Tyranny of Distance and the large, arena rock sound of Hearts of Oak. And because of this simpler approach, Leo’s message seems that much more poignant. Leo sounds inspirational on album opener “Me and Mia” (“Do you believe in something beautiful? Then get up and be it“), caustic on “Heart Problems” (“They tell you `crime, it doesn’t pay,’ but they’ll make us pay to be victimized“) and overwhelmed on “Shake the Sheets” (“I feel defeated here by everything, cheated here by everyone on every side“).
Though Ted’s message takes center stage on Shake the Sheets, the music is anything but window dressing for his pointed barbs. The now-famous Thin Lizzy obsession rears its head on the bouncy “Counting Down the Hours” and “Walking to Do.” But most of the album takes on a simpler, almost punk style. The Pharmacists play it catchy and fast on “Me and Mia,” “Criminal Piece” and “Heart Problems.” Elsewhere, some unusual riffs and influences find their way into the band’s routine, particularly the alternating octave riff in “The Angels’ Share” and the dub-into-power-pop transition of the outstanding “Better Dead Than Lead.” Musically, there’s very little that Ted Leo and the Pharmacists can’t do.
What makes Shake the Sheets so enjoyable is just how well the band balances their catchy rock music with heavy-handed politics. Neither is compromised for the sake of the other, making it an essential addition to anyone’s Leo discography. This sort of album shan’t go unnoticed, though. Because while The Pharmacists and contemporaries like Q and Not U and Sleater-Kinney are taking it upon themselves to speak and act according to their beliefs and consciences, it takes an open ear for their messages to make a difference. And it would be a real tragedy if no one were to listen.
So, so long to you “moderates”
It’s time for getting down
Your peace and quiet is criminal
While there’s injustice in the town
Chisel – 8AM All Day
The Jam – In the City
Walking Concert – Run to Be Born
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.