Clear-eyed reflection

May 2, 2001 at 12:00 am

If the bittersweet pop concoctions ringing from the speakers when Ted Leo’s in the CD player sound a bit familiar, it’s a forgivable offense. You see, Leo’s done something really interesting with his latest “solo” full-length, The Tyranny of Distance. He’s managed to remove the singer-songwriter genre another generation from its ’60s guy-with-a-guitar stereotype and infuse it with the modern world sensibilities of the punk and New Wave sensitive singer-songwriter guys. In other words, Leo, late of underappreciated Mod-ish emo outfit (aren’t they all?) Chisel, and his “band” the Pharmacists resurrect the “angry young man” brand of capital-”P” Pop songwriting.

But he does something more than just conjure the past in the name of the future. He’s reclaimed the “I” voice that’s been so abused of late by not only whiny, misty-eyed songwriters, but grunge byproduct bands, mosh-pit misogynists and the emo crowd from which he sprang. Tyranny of Distance is clear-eyed, reflective narrative coupled to diamond-tight pop songcraft.

Reeling and keening through 12 snapshots of an unironic, doubting and relentlessly self-examining soul, Leo lays out the last 25 years of guitar pop with ease and just happens to have a gift for catchy hooks. He gets yeoman help from such indie-pantheon name drops as producer Brendan Canty (of Fugazi) and instrumental aid from Canty’s brother James (Nation of Ulysses, Make-Up) and Seb Thomson (Trans Am). It’s B. Canty’s hand, presumably, that’s responsible for the deceptively polished raw and live feel of the record. But it’s Leo who’s responsible for lining up luminaries.

Joe Jackson, Feargal Sharkey, Phil Lynott (yup, “Timorous Me” is the greatest cut Thin Lizzy never recorded), Squeeze, Paul Weller, Elvis C. and the rest of the gang pitch in to aid and abet Leo in articulating his thoughts on love, loss and emotional endurance.

That sounds bleak and referential on paper, but on record it’s refreshing, infectious as all get-out and damned ecstatic.

Ted Leo & the Pharmacists perform May 9 at the Pirate House, 411 E. William in Ann Arbor, with Q And Not U, Red Shirt Brigade and Trocar.

E-mail Chris Handyside at [email protected].