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Ted Leo and The Pharmacists

Ted Leo and his band The Pharmacists are a relatively recent musical discovery for me. While formulating my thoughts for this very review, two things incessantly beat down the door of my brain:

1. How could I possibly not have known about these guys before? and
2. Nickelback.

Rather than go into a long anti-industry diatribe, suffice to say it's maddening to realize a rock band of this quality is so difficult to unearth while bands like Nickelback sell ridiculous amounts of sucky nothingness. I'd prefer to enter a long diatribe about just how good Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are. That commences now.

I suppose the whole thing would be easier to understand if Leo's music wasn't very accessible. That's hardly the case. The songs are energetic and passionate, and you feel an instant connection to each one the moment you hear it. The music has familiarity because the sounds and styles are all borrowed and blended. Leo starts with an underlying punk sensibility and fuses it with classic rock, folk, blues and pop elements. Nothing revolutionary, but it feels fresh and exciting somehow. The band's 2003 album Hearts of Oak is so infectious, you'll have 13 choruses stuck in your head all day after spinning it all the way through. Not that you'll want them to leave.

Leo got his start in the East Coast hardcore movement back in the '80s, fronting two bands before moving to D.C. in 1990 and forming Chisel, an influential band in the indie punk scene at the time. The band broke up in 1997, but not before Leo had made a little niche name for himself. After a few years trying his hand at a solo career, Leo formed the Pharmacists and they eventually signed with Berkeley's Lookout Records. Hearts of Oak is their second full-length release, a follow-up to 2001's hipster- and critic-approved The Tyranny of Distance. As time has progressed, Leo's sound has evolved from straight-up punk to that of a talented musician/songwriter well-versed in rock history.

Upon closer inspection, there are a couple reasons why the band will probably never reach Number One with a bullet. The Pharmacists' music can be aggressive at times, though it's nothing like the misplaced angst of the Limp Bizkit variety. Instead the songs come alive with vibrancy, exploration and urgency. The lyrics, too, are downright highbrow- poetic and chockful of literate references, imagery and earnest storytelling. Each song is an explosion of words that the band turns into a frenetic, yet structured, melody packed with memorable hooks. A brilliant example from "The High Party": "So I'm lifting up that poison cup to drink a draught of propaganda/or I'm giving up that other stuff in hopes that it will make me madder/But either way, if you're gonna call it art/then there's a cup in front of you and right away/if you're gonna play your part, you must drink it down."

Leo's voice is quite simply the heart of the band. He has amazing vocal abilities that literally wrap around the music, and he launches into some awesome extended falsettos. Other times he switches modes and talk-sings - I was vaguely reminded of Rage Against the Machine on "The Ballad of the Sin Eater" when he repeatedly chants "You didn't think they could hate you, now did you?" On top of it all, Leo plays a mad guitar to complement his own lead.

As for the live act, Pharmacists shows are known to be a bit raucous. No there won't be a mosh pit forming in front of the Bottom of the Hill stage, but this is music even the coolest indie rocker can use as an excuse to deviate from the usual arms-crossed, head-bop pose and move around a little. Perhaps you'll even overhear them wondering aloud how crazy it is that they'd never heard of these guys before.