Ted Leo and the Pharmacists returns after a three-year hiatus with its sixth album, The Brutalist Bricks, which is a much more optimistic take on Leo’s political power pop than 2007’s Living with the Living. The lineup has changed in the last few years as well, with Marty Key replacing bassist Dave Lerner and with James Canty joining the band on guitar, allowing for a more fleshed-out sound to accompany Leo’s skilled riffing.
While Living ran over an hour long and featured several songs over the five-minute mark alongside shorter tracks, Bricks strips away the experimentation and sees the band returning to more basic and immediately gratifying structures: songs that hover around three minutes and are riddled with catchy melodies.
Bricks wastes no time getting started; opener “The Mighty Sparrow” is one of the most immediately engaging cuts on the album, with Leo’s vocals as strong as ever, delivering somewhat sinister lyrics, opening with “When the café doors exploded…” and an almost uplifting melody. This song, along with lead single “Even Heroes Have to Die,” features more acoustic guitar than most Ted Leo songs, giving it a softer edge than the usual crunch.
“Mourning in America” is a highlight: rushes of quick guitar chords alternate with fuzzed-out bass in the verses, and Leo barks a wistful melody with a tinge of alarm, a mixture of tones that only he could pull off. Rarely are such hummable tunes rendered so urgent, much less without suffering because of speed.
There are only slight variations to the band’s style throughout the record &-&- quicker songs such as the upbeat “Where Was My Brain?” and the brief, pointed “The Stick” might not catch many ears at first, but, for example, the latter’s flurry of minor guitars gives it a chilling edge upon additional listenings.
The songs that initially stand out because of their instrumentation and style end up being some of the most rewarding. “Bottled in Cork” races through a slew of geographical locations, like Hearts of Oak‘s “The Ballad of the Sin Eater” but sunnier, with a simple acoustic chord progression that sticks readily and a sweet refrain of “Tell the bartender, I think I’m falling in love” that is bound to get stuck in your head.
The most surprising track here is “Tuberculoids Arrive in Hop,” which, with its soft background noise and slow acoustic strumming, sounds almost exactly like Elliott Smith’s early material, but with a piercing bridge to set Leo apart. In the middle of an album of quick pop songs, “Tuberculoids” is unexpectedly tender and somewhat haunting with its surreal lyrics: “But I feel all time is ending, as it’s east, the sun is setting.”
It’s easy to call this a “return-to-form” album, but that shouldn’t be seen as a downside, as the band hasn’t sounded so tight in years. While occasionally deviating from the band’s style, the album never drags, and after two or three spins you’ll find yourself singing any number of its tunes and listening again for the little bridges and subtle changes in each track.