Ted Leo, Living With The Living
Ted Leo & The Pharmacists
Living With The Living (Touch & Go)
Honestly, I was ready to hate the new Ted Leo record, if only because of its hideous album art. I mean, look at it. What was he thinking? The covers of Hearts Of Oak and Shake The Sheets are iconic, perfectly representing the songs within. But this cover? It looks like it was designed by a fourth-grader with construction paper and a glue stick. Sadly, the album's second half has the same problem.
The fun of listening to a Ted Leo record - aside from the inherent fun of it all - is spotting the influences. Hey, that sounded like the Clash! His voice sounds like Joe Jackson! That bassline is from a Booker T. & The MG's song! Leo features these influences without sacrificing originality, largely on the strength of his great melodies. The truth is, those melodies aren't as prominent here. There's no "Tell Balgeary," no "Biomusicology," no "Me and Mia."
There are some good songs, for sure, but they fall on the album's first half. "The Sons Of Cain" is especially fantastic, featuring a frantic tempo, a hyper acoustic guitar part, and a catchy melody. The next track, "Army Bound," channels the Kinks' "Victoria" for the first few seconds, and then Leo makes it his own, singing "In every garden there's a snake now, in every pardon, there's mistake now." These songs stick to his usual formula, and they work.
Though straying from a usual schtick is admirable, Leo doesn't do it very well. Most of the songs on the second half of Living With The Living sag from slowness and overseriousness, and an unfortunate run of these begins with " Bomb.Repeat.Bomb.," a pretentious bit of spoken-word nonsense, which somehow lasts for three minutes. Then we're given "The Unwanted Things," a slow, overlong reggae number, and "The Lost Brigade," a mediocre, unmemorable rock song. Do I have to mention "The Toro and the Toreador," whose melody bears an unfortunate resemblance to that of the theme song for America's Funniest Home Videos?
Luckily, things pick up near the end. For Leo, a faster song generally means success, and "Some Beginner's Mind" and "C.I.A." are solid efforts. "C.I.A.," the last track, is an especially good way to end the record. It starts with an unadorned acoustic guitar, then drums come galloping in, and the familiar Ted Leo sound - all white boy soul, Clash infatuation, and excessive energy - comes rushing back. But all's well that ends well? Not quite.