One night in fall 1993 I turned on WVFI-640 AM (then “broadcasting” through a carrier current system to the residence halls at Notre Dame via electrical outlets). Right after the Ventures' cover of "Sukiyaki," Ted Leo expounded upon "The Show” by Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s vocals on the B-side, where Slick Rick covers Taste of Honey's 1981 version of “Sukiyaki." Later, Leo mentions Ludella Black of Thee Headcoatees before he plays the Smugglers' version of “Miss Ludella Black” by Thee Mighty Caesars. Through his commentary, references, humor and music, it was like that “New York station” both cosmopolitan and subterranean- way beyond the realm of the typical student and/or college radio DJ in '93. Later in his show, he would spin more Ventures and April March’s “Voodoo Doll” single.
Lookout Mountain Rock
Outside of his legendary work in Chisel, I consider his trio of Lookout Records albums his strongest and most immediate, not only for their Big Star riffs, but also for the mod and Moby Grape moves as well. It all came together in 2004’s “Shake the Sheets” which matched up succinct stripped-down songs with graduate school idealism, street-level politics and a heart extended towards the disenfranchised, the discounted and the downtrodden. Playing the album in a context of a Southwestern college town, with its atmosphere somewhat already attuned to the consideration of the common good, this stack of songs naturally fit in like the mountains on the horizon.
This all brings us to this year 17 solo album The Hanged Man. The muffled production sounds, at times, like it’s already in need of remastering and the front cover art is too much like the sideshow art previously employed on Attack of the Smithereens way back in 1995. Before it reaches its midway point, the album starts to drag and plod with overwrought songs like “William Weld in the 21st Century” and “The Nazarene.” Musical traction is lost within the overextended length and weight of these back-to-back songs. (If this was Lou Reed in an experimental mood, we would just give him a hall pass and go on to praise his pierced together sheet metal guitars in the next sentence.)
However, who am I to criticize as Leo has suffered through some truly disturbing life circumstances and there are way more serious matters to attend to in life than subjective opinions regarding the production and packaging of recorded sounds. By confronting his confusion, internal strife and past circumstances beyond control through his gift of music, Leo's encouraging others with similar experiences towards possible healing and reconciliation. It takes an artist of a certain elevated & noble level to take his/her own pain and suffering and transform/transcend it through art and actually make life better for others-- it all leads to the definition of soul.
“Used to Believe” sounds like Falkner (Jason that is) in which the chorus rides those immersive aquatic 1001 strings from “You Only Live Twice.” There is also a stunning moment that is flecked by one of those spinning out, coiled and braided guitar solos before going back into this song already in progress. Also surging forward is “The Future (Is Learning To...)” where Leo reaches the summits of his Lookout years with a rousing chorus buttressed by verses of Century 21 Joycean word play that wraps around to hold up the towering melodies. With its jaunty marching cadence, “Run to the City” covers the attraction (work & culture) and repulsion (unaffordable housing & damaging commutes) of coastal cities with a switch of a preposition.
While he is quite the enigma, Leo has been consistently “small-c” catholic in scope and “small-m" methodist in his adherence to noble DC DIY tenants. Yet, I don’t understand his incessant Twittering which seemingly goes against his discerning denouncements of our current culture’s desire to (over) document everything and miss the moment or his frequent plugs to read the writings of Jaron Lanier (where the computer scientist states the obvious about the blatant misuse of technology). There have been shows where too much talk broke up the continuity of the rock. Other times, he’s ridden the edges of a guitar sound propelled by his fluid fretboard power that satisfyingly clanged and spiraled up to the stratosphere. Still, he has more than earned his platform and has the right to believe that the ordinary working person has much more agency than what is seemingly possible-especially in these current conditions where unchecked power pretty much rides roughshod or gets easily pardoned.
What if We Give it Away?
While critics will rightfully cite that Leo is "Steppin’ Out" in full-on Sophisti-pop mode and dress—most directly on the deceptively simple, swank and sanguine “Can’t Go Back." Leo, himself, might mention tragic figures like the late- Scott Miller again or conflicted souls like Emitt Rhodes among his seemingly infinite continuum of musical influences. For the most part, The Hanged Man reminds me of This Sounds Like Goodbye by Ken Stringfellow and other moments hearken back to his experimental first post-Chisel solo album tej leo(?), Rx / pharmacists, which has also stood the test of time.
With the Clash as his North Star, Leo has never been afraid of breaking form in order to stay away from formula. Sure, he has had his share of missteps and misfires, but he has continually pushed his limits, challenged listeners and diversified. His back catalog features several stylistic ventures into disputed musical territories-especially when he signaling the schisms and conveying distress. The remarkable guitar tones and crackling production of “Little Smug Supper Club” is actually reminiscent of Don Gehman-produced Scarecrow-era John Mellencamp. This mini-epic not only questions the level of devotion to beliefs, but also the beliefs themselves by those who live the lifestyle. Or in other words the dangers of repetitively reconfirming predisposed assumptions and beliefs.
Like a Phil Ochs for the lost Generation X, Leo has long been attuned to deciphering shifting atmospheres and the evolving present. He can also be sagacious about the past, which he amplifies in the twangy form of “Lonsdale Avenue.” This standout song masks displacement and the ultimate loss of life on earth, but rings to remind us to use life’s challenges as catalysts to both deepen our understanding and continually evolve. The Hanged Man presents a circling back to his experimental first solo album, some semblance of home, and Leo's continued quest for the impossible dream. In short, he's beginning to see the light, that can only be brighter after all the darkness.
|It's a Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod World-1993 mix tape by Ted Leo|