During the George Dubya Bush presidency, there were a lot of prime targets for liberal-minded songwriters — of varying degrees of talent — to take political potshots at or simply to make political statements about. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists were reliably one on the bands at the very top of the heap during these years, leveling polemics against the administration that also, at the same time, burned up the dance floor.
With Barack Obama now firmly planted in the White House, Leo could've softened the focus of his indictments. But The Brutalist Bricks shows no signs of this whatsoever. What's unique about Leo's socially conscious songs is summed up in the opening line of "The Mighty Sparrow": "When the café doors exploded/I reacted to you." His concerns in change operate specifically on a personal level. It's that dialogue and plea for complicity that sets Leo apart from most of music's other progressives.
Firmly still backing up the singer-songwriter, the Pharmacists are mercurial as ever. The sweaty, frenzied roots of "Mourning in America" and "Where Was My Brain" can be traced back through the post-punk roots of the band's catalog. "Even Heroes Have to Die," the album's single, drips with the same wry venom as the very best of Elvis Costello & the Attractions, while "Bottled in Cork" sounds like Brit-pop perfection. The real revelations on this LP, though, are the touches of white-boy soul — in both "One Polaroid a Day" (a propulsive funky number featuring a deep husky vocal from Leo) and "Tuberculoids Arrive in Hop," the latter a modest stab at freak-folk open-chord guitar drones and the nocturnal static of crickets. It's a nice sonic evolution from a band whose message is still going very strong, thank you.
Friday, March 12, at the Crofoot Ballroom, 1 Saginaw St., Pontiac; 248-858-9333. With Title Tracks and City Center.
Aaron Shaul writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].