In an age when even the most innocuous, boring pop has guitars squealing in the background, when teenie-boppers enlist the instrument as the anchor for their ï¿½rockï¿½ albums, itï¿½s difficult to look at guitar music, or even rock ï¿½nï¿½ roll, the same as when it made congressmen and religious groups clutch their Bibles and mumble incoherently about the end of the world. But never budging from the traditionalism of guitar pop, Shake the Sheets, Ted Leoï¿½s fourth album with the Pharamacists, is pretty much as good as rock/pop is going to get.
The albumï¿½s only real flaw — its stubbornness of form and genre — is paradoxically why itï¿½s such an engaging listen; thereï¿½s no electronic glitches and bumps, no oboes, no rabid monks. Shake the Sheets employs the basic fifty-year-old formula and somehow makes it brand new.
Leo, who got started in the late-ï¿½80s as part of the New York hardcore bands Citizenï¿½s Arrest and Animal Crackers before founding the mod/punk revival outfit Chisel, has consistently created engaging rock ï¿½nï¿½ roll throughout his career. Whatï¿½s more astonishing is that his current brand of rock ï¿½nï¿½ roll — indie rock, if you will — isnï¿½t freckled with the influential fingerprints of those responsible for indie-rockï¿½s resident bigwigs. Leo takes his musical cues from God knows who, but it sure as hell ainï¿½t the single-note droning of Lou Reed.
Like all Leoï¿½s releases, Shake the Sheets is rampaged by frenzied guitars that feel like they could tumble out of your headphones and knock you in the head. His voice is as expressive as any instrument, as it tightens and flexes with clever, thoughtful lyrics — another rarity in an age where Julian Casablancas barfs out whatever he ate last night and arranges it into verse.
Produced by Chris Shaw, whoï¿½s worked with Weezer, Ween and Wilco, Shake the Sheets offers an almost mechanical economy of song writing. Not a moment goes by without something propelling the song forward, continuously building a subtle tension that pays off in Leoï¿½s grace and understanding of song structure. Rarely are motifs introduced that arenï¿½t evident within the songï¿½s first minute, but the songs are saved from predictability by their tightness and the bandï¿½s willingness to expand and grow these motifs. ï¿½Heart Problemsï¿½ introduces a basic riff in the beginning and then abandons it for chugging guitars. Itï¿½s not until the end that the Pharmacists build different bass lines and drum rhythms over the intro that the song comes full circle.
If songs could exist on energy alone, Shake the Sheets would be a double album. Its triumph isnï¿½t just in its energy, though, itï¿½s in its competence. The cohesiveness of guitar and voice, of song structure and energy, the way every element works together is what makes the album gorgeous. Ted Leo is rock ï¿½nï¿½ rollï¿½s respirator; without him, itï¿½ll cough and gasp until a pack of wild monks comes to hum their blessings or some kid runs an IV from his laptop.