Ted Leo and the Pharmacists have cranked out quality records for a decade (particularly with The Tyranny of Distance), and Leo had a strong run before that with bands like Chisel. With that track record, the release of new album, in this case The Brutalist Bricks, should be cause for optimism, but even fans can be forgiven for wariness. For the most part, the Leo paradigm is already set: a punk approach to big hooks mixed with smart, often political lyrics. Sure, Living With the Living mixed the plan up a little, but the pattern seems secure. With a new release, the question is not so much what it will sound like, but will it be strong enough to warrant more of the same.
Considering those concerns, The Brutalist Bricks comes off as only a mild disappointment. A perfunctory listen yields little that stands out, offering none of the instant classics that the earlier albums earwormed into steady rotation. The band usually has a penchant for the sort of catchiness that keeps songs around better than even a frequently played jingle. This album lacks “Timorous Me”, “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?”, or even a “Me and Mia”.
That’s not to say there’s no good music here, of course. The buzz and exploding doors of opener “The Mighty Sparrow” gives the album a strong push. The band’s as energetic as ever, and Leo’s got his usual vocal enthusiasm. “Woke Up Near Chelsea” has an anthemic ’70s sound that matches its despair-to-victory rioting, and succeeds reasonably well as a unifying rally point. “Gimme the Wine” provides a noisy, mildly abrasive approach to undercutting a chorus that could get a concert crowd screaming, making for a interesting song that still fits in with the general aesthetic.
The problem is just that none of that is quite good enough or interesting enough to really carry an album. Tracks like “Even Heroes Have to Die” could have been stuck on nearly any other Pharmacists album. Even if it’s quality, the similarity to past work provides too little payoff, and without surrounding standouts, there’s little reason to pick this album out over, say, Hearts of Oak. “Where Was My Brain?” varies from the format a little with its more straightforward punk sound, but while it doesn’t sound exactly like typical Pharmacist offerings, it’s not strong enough on its own accord to be a winning performance. Likewise “Tuberculoids Arrive in Hop” offers a dreamy folk sound that changes the album’s sound, but not with noteworthy results.
Leo frequently offers unusual and specific takes on the world around him, but there’s nothing here to get us to that point. When he’s stringing together his long sentences and thoughts on things like “a resolution pending on the United Nations floor”, it’s easy to fall away from those thoughts. “Bottled in Cork” (which, aside from referencing the UN, manages to rhyme its title phrases with a line about Congressional pork) works well enough with its Jam-influenced sound, but it lacks a permanent draw (you need a little extra patience to listen well enough to figure out what all the songs are about). Sure, “a little goodwill goes a mighty long way,” and while Leo is ever likable and, even here, enjoyable, it takes more than just the right sentiments to put a routine album into an entirely different category. It’s a shame that an artist that’s had so much to say seems to be stuck for the moment.