Ted Leo and the Pharmacists cook up creativity in Noho

By Dean Curran

Courtesy Ted Leo and the Pharmacists' Myspace
Independent music legend Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are scheduled to perform Thursday night at the Pearl Street Ballroom in Northampton. Over the past decade, the group’s progressive brand of rock music has gained them both critical acclaim and a dedicated fan base. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists have been hailed as one of the most forward-thinking bands on the East Coast for their radical experimentation grounded in tradition. Their sound remains within the paradigm of punk rock, but is informed by a variety of genres including folk, 60s pop-rock, dub reggae and indie rock.

Singer/guitarist Ted Leo is the band’s creative force, and membership of the Pharmacists has remained in flux through the years. The current band consists of guitarist James Canty, drummer Chris Wilson and bassist Marty Key. This lineup recorded Ted Leo and the Pharmacist’s most recent studio album “The Brutalist Bricks,” released this year on Matador records. The album is the band’s most confident and varied collection in years, with Leo rejuvenated in his talent for firebrand song craft.

Prior to the Pharmacists’ inception, Ted Leo was active in the late 80s New York hardcore scene through his other bands, Citizens Arrest and Animal Crackers. In 1990, he relocated to Washington D.C. and formed Chisel, the first mod/punk revival band to receive national attention. After Chisel’s breakup in 1997, Leo had brief stints in the Spinanes and the Sin Eaters before finally forming the Pharmacists in 1999. The group made a splash with their first EP “Treble in Trouble,” the debut release by the Pharmacists as a full band. Prior to that release, Leo had produced a handful of highly experimental efforts under the name Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. Upon forming the band, Leo began playing more conventional instrumental arrangements while retaining some of these experimental aspects. With this, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and the unique sound they have become famous for was born.

Since then, the Pharmacists have cemented Leo’s place in underground music history. The band signed with independent label Lookout! Records, which released three of their most acclaimed full length albums. The first of which, 2001’s “The Tyranny of Distance,” made the group a household name and established Leo as a first-rate songwriter. The combination of punk’s rambunctious energy and brilliant hooks is aggressive while remaining memorable.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists went on to release two more highly acclaimed albums, 2003’s “Hearts of Oak” and 2004’s “Shake the Sheets” and 2007’s “Living with the Living.” Through these releases Leo has remained fresh by dabbling in various genres while remaining a consistent songwriter. These albums establish Leo as a highly literate lyricist, wistfully commenting on the world often through romantic experiences. His message remains accessible, however, and his melancholy is more earnest than overbearing.

He also manages to address political issues without coming off as preachy. In 2008, Leo was moved to action when hordes of peaceful protestors at the Republican National Committee in St. Paul, Minn. were arrested by police. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists quickly released the “Rapid Response” EP on Touch and Go records, donating the proceeds to Democracy Now! and the Minneapolis chapter of Food not Bombs.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacist’s new album, “The Brutalist Bricks,” is the group’s best full-length release since “Shake the Sheets.” While “Living with the Living” was prolonged and strays at points, “The Brutalist Bricks” is tighter, and re-energized.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists will be performing at the Pearl Street Ballroom in Northampton on Thursday, Nov. 2 at 8:30 P.M. Tickets are $15 in advance and at the door.

Dean Curran can be reached at [email protected]