This review originally appeared at www.forcesofgood.blogspot.com.
On their last album, Shake The Sheets, Ted Leo & The Pharmacists displayed a more stripped down sound after they whittled down to a power trio. For their fifth album, would they stay the course with more rock or would they branch out into the Celtic and dub reggae influences shown on earlier albums?
After the instrumental "The Fourth World War," the album kicks off with three politically-charged tunes, "Sons of Cain," "Army Bound" and "Who Do You Love?" "Army Bound" is a fantastic track examining the military induction as the only solution for disenfranchised youth to make their way in the world, illustrated by the opening lines: "Some modest dreams, they just don't pay out/Some modest means don't leave much way out/In every crade there's a grave now/In every owner there's a slave now." Lyrics like this make it clear why his songwriting has drawn comparison to Billy Bragg and Joe Strummer. The satirical stream-of-consciousness "Bomb Repeat Bomb" is a mixed bag. With its slightly grating stream of consciousness rantings for verses, it explores how some have become desensitized to all the Iraq war footage or more generally, war itself.
Leo isn't all politics though. "La Costa Brava" centers on how even the socially conscious need a break from the daily doses of bad news. "You know that waking up to the daily blues from waking up to the daily news, ain't nothing strange." The tin whistle solo on the nostalgic "A Bottle Of Buckie" is one the more overt Celtic influences on "Living With The Living." There are some misses like "The Lost Brigade" and "The World Stops Turning." These aren't bad songs per se, but they're just average, especially for Ted Leo.
What really stands out on Living With The Living, is Leo deciding to roll the dice and take some chances. Known for using dub reggae effects and an occasional Mighty Diamonds cover, Ted Leo's love of reggae is no secret. But "The Unwanted Things" finds Leo singing his first original reggae song, "The Unwanted Things." On this rootsy number, he channels his inner Junior Murvin and belts out the album's standout track in a sweet falsetto.
The second chance he takes his on "The Toro And The Toreador" which may be the first indie rock power ballad. (Yes, you read that correctly.) This could go one of two ways: sink or swim. Shockingly enough, it swims. It starts with an echoing guitar but segues into slow rock. (Think of The Beatles' "Something.") And what's a power ballad without a guitar solo? (Blasphemy is what it would be.) This song makes me wish I was in junior high now, so I could request it at school dances.
"Living With The Living" shows Ted Leo & The Pharmacists spreading their wings and taking chances. It leaves one wondering how they will top this.