In this, the second decade of Ted Leo’s career as a rock musician, he remains true to his original sound: poppy, at times punky, influenced by classic rock as much as indie rock, musically accomplished but still excitable—clever but never obscure. His latest album The Tyranny of Distance is a Chesapeake Bay of rock ‘n’ roll, pulling sounds and ideas from a vast landscape—a little Yes here, a lot of Big Star there.
The first thing you notice on The Tyranny of Distance is Leo’s voice. It sounds stronger than ever. Teetering on the brink of falsetto, he belts out his lyrics with joy rather than bile, retaining the pop-rock sound that his been his trademark since his early days in Chisel, but cutting it with a “soulfulness” that defies slacker rock and seeks refuge in the ‘70s. Remarkably, none of this feels like a put-on.
Charting a path through these choppy waters is the finest band Leo has ever assembled, including Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty (who also produced the record), James Canty (guitarist of the Make Up), Seb Thomson, Amy Dominguez (cellist, lately of many projects, including Jenny Toomey), and bassists Pete Kerlin and Alex Minoff. Leo himself plays all the guitars (both Cantys provide drums along with Leo’s brother Danny). As a unit, they display riff-rocking firepower worthy of Big Star. Songs like “The Great Communicator” or “Under the Hedge” would do Alex Chilton proud, both as compositions and guitar performances.
Six-string virtuosity aside, what makes Leo such a compelling musician are the big hooky pop songs he writes. Standouts here are too many to name, but “Biomusicology” and “Timorous Me” are two that jump out at first listen. In fact, of the 12 tracks on the record, only “Dial Up” and “My Vien Ilin” have yet to grab me—which means on the all important Killer-to-Filler scale The Tyranny of Distance scores an almost unbelievable five to one, which then leads me to ask, is Leo even human, or did he buy a thousand pop melodies wholesale in the ‘70s that he’s just now unloading?
I realize that continually referring to The Tyranny of Distance as a pop record and to Leo as a pop artist sounds belittling or like a put-down. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Lyrical tests aside, The Tyranny of Distance is a “fun” record more than a “serious” one. For coming down on the better side of this divide, it may not get the recognition of artier music, but it is far more enjoyable and far more artful for it. As anyone knows who has tried, writing good pop songs year after year isn’t an easy task. When an artist comes along who is capable of it, it’s wise to pay attention.