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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Overcast
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Punk against Bush
Ted Leo fights the power on Living With the Living
Leo rants against Washington's latest follies.
Leo rants against Washington's latest follies.

Much of the time, melody-friendly punker Ted Leo can barely contain his righteous indignation on Living With the Living, his fifth album under his own name but his first CD for the venerable Touch and Go label. Never one to keep his political opinions to himself, he goes after the follies of the Bush White House with gusto, reaching a creative apogee early in the track listing with the rousing reel "Army Bound," a cutting tune about being forced into the soldiering life that briefly quotes Ray Davies' equally political but far slyer "Victoria."

Leo delivers some more crushing body blows against Washington's current empire builders with "Bomb. Repeat. Bomb," a breathless antiwar screed that features Leo's band, the Pharmacists, matching his stuttering, Gang of Four-derived guitar beat for beat. "The Lost Brigade," a sober meditation on the possibility of resistance and renewal "in this land of grand decay," is less martial but just as successful.

While he often references Elvis Costello, XTC's Andy Partridge (with whom he shares a sharp, ex­pressive pop voice), Paul Weller and the Clash's Joe Strummer in his music, Leo knows enough to mix up his influences. Peppy pop-punk hybrids abound here, but there's also some very credible reggae ("Unwanted Things") and swelling Queen-inspired hard-rock balladry ("Toro and the Toreador").

If Leo has a weakness, it's his predilection for setting treacly melodies against punchy beats. Weller and Costello were masters at this when they were young. But Leo's not quite in their league. Only a true-blue fan wouldn't notice that the formula really grates on the bittersweet character sketch "Collen," the tedious travelogue-cum-confession "Costa Brava" and the wordy anti-spook tirade "C.I.A."

To his credit, Leo sings them all with unstinting conviction. But his commitment to this forgettable material can't gloss over the fact that if Living With the Living were shorter by a third, it would be a far more forceful piece of work.

In all likelihood, Fugazi's Brendan Canty won't be manning the soundboard when Leo & the Pharmacists play Union South's Club 770 on Thursday, April 26, and that's a pity. By jamming the band's rhythm section up against Leo's boyish vocals, he fashions muscular mixes that dilute some of that aforementioned treacle. This strategy doesn't make the duff tracks any more memorable, but it does make them perfect for dancing the night away.

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