Tellingly, Jersey-bred, Notre Dame-schooled Ted Leo is still counted among the District’s musical sons, despite having not resided here for a decade. There are a several supporting theories—the obvious influence that D.C. hardcore groups had on his political punk band, Citizens Arrest; that his mod-revival band, Chisel, came to prominence in D.C. in the mid-’90s; and that he’s maintained close ties to scene stalwarts like James Canty (Nation of Ulysses, the Make-Up), who’s been a member of Leo’s backing band, the Pharmacists, off and on since the full band’s D.C. inception in 1999. Of course, it’s also hard to shake the D.C. label when you’re peddling such politically minded lyrics as “There was a resolution pending on the United Nations Floor/In reference to the question ‘What’s a peacekeeping force for?’” from “Bottled in Cork,” which lands about halfway through Leo’s latest record, The Brutalist Bricks.
In that song, as ever, Leo’s eloquent lyrics are dense and worldly, globe-troting from Copenhagen to Munich and Sweden. Undoubtedly, his willfully obscure cultural references will send some curious listener on wild goose chases: Is “The Mighty Sparrow” about the undisputed “Calypso king of the world?” Who is this Bartolomeo and why are his bees buzzing? What the hell is a tuberculoid? Even the album’s alliterative title sent me scurrying to my Merriam-Webster Unabridged, which defines “brutalism” as “a style in art and especially architecture using exaggeration and distortion to create its effect (as of massiveness or power).” Lest fans of architecture-obsessed rock bands like Pavement, Bauhaus, and Simon and Garfunkel (“So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright”) get too excited, Leo’s Brutalist Bricks, suggesting the architecture of the federal government, actually seems to be a synecdoche for the oppressiveness of a ruling regime.
But The Brutalist Bricks is no high-minded chore. Like, say, the Scripps National Spelling Bee, it proves that an extensive vocabulary can be more entertaining than pedantic. From the opening energetic burst of “The Mighty Sparrow” to the dissonant closer “Last Days,” the entire album is upbeat, catchy, and more than palatable. Fans of literate rock who felt that Vampire Weekend’s latest was as satisfying as a dry-hump session in starched chinos should be able to get their rocks off on Brutalist Bricks.
The standout elements of “Mourning in America” are Chris Wilson’s breakneck drumming, Marty Key’s Super Fuzzed bass throb, and some spacey dub-synth embellishments. Here, Leo takes on racism, referencing white faces, “white shrouds,” “burning crosses,” and Reagan’s notorious 1980 postnomination speech on “states’ rights.” At least, that’s a fair guess; Leo’s lyrical snipe hunts rarely lend themselves to easy untangling.
At first glance, “Ativan Eyes,” its title a reference to the anxiety medication, appears to be a “Mother’s Little Helper” for our times. However, when Leo sings “the means of production are now in the hands of the workers,” the song tilts dangerously close to proletarian-rock parody. Luckily, Leo’s next is line “But I still want to be guided by your expert hands/I want you to lay your expert hands on me,” suggesting that he’s well in on the joke.
The extraordinarily tuneful “One Polaroid a Day” is slightly slower than the rest of the album, but it’s a welcome change. Ordinarily, Leo sings with a strained urgency, but on “Polaroid” he delivers his lines with an unhurried breathiness. Leo’s cadence and style recalls that of his idol, Joe Strummer—particularly Strummer’s singing on his slower Clash songs and later with the Mescaleros. “Where Was My Brain?,” a rambunctious lament about lost youth and disillusionment in the District, features the line that gives the album its title: “Modern architecture gave me a kick/Until I lived among the brutalist bricks.”
Leo wages war on cynicism in “Bartolomeo and the Buzzing of Bees,” optimistically singing, “I know I’ve been distant/But I feel a change comin’ on/I know I’ve been resistant/But I feel a change way too strong.” It’s a nice counter to those “So, How’s That ‘Hope’ and ‘Change’ Working Out for You?” bumper stickers.
But Leo’s greatest strength isn’t his ideology or intellect, but his willingness to get personal. After the political prelude of “Bottled in Cork,” arguably the best song of Leo’s career, he sings “I got a message from my sister/She just had a kid” in a way that seems intimate, or at least like a tweet from a friend. Leo’s voice is in fine form: When a chorus of his overdubbed vocals finishes the song by repeating “Tell the bartender/I think I’m falling in love,” one wishes it would continue endlessly instead of fading out. Leo also takes an introspective approach on “Tuberculoids Arrive in Hop,” which is a more jarring shade of mellow than “One Polaroid a Day.” “Tuberculoids”—with its spare production, mournful tone, and the ambient tones of crickets and footsteps—is reminiscent of the introspective work of low-key, doomed souls like Eliott Smith and Skip Spence. Meanwhile, “Last Days” could come from a Pavement led by Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook. When Leo sings, “Woke up today/Got on my way/Heard someone say/Are we living in the last days?/And being alone, I naturally thought of you,” it’s evident that his songs aren’t academic lectures so much as they’re thoughtful soliloquies in reaction to world events. Perhaps that’s why he’s still considered a native son. The sense of familiarity of his songs makes it seem like he never left.