Music

Ted Leo and The Pharmacists: Shake the Sheets

Zeth Lundy

Shake the Sheets is bleary eyed and caffeine-stoked, empathetic and unfiltered, as majestically melodic as Jon Brion and fiercely topical as Joe Strummer. It's a clean, bright thunderbolt of self-expression, overwhelmingly electric like flood lights, and probably one of the best sets of no-frills, intelligent rock you'll hear this year.


Ted Leo and the Pharmacists

Shake the Sheets

Label: Lookout!
US Release Date: 2004-10-19
UK Release Date: Available as import
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Regrettably, there is no better way to describe "Me and Mia", the opening song on Ted Leo + Pharmacists' new record, than to cuss it out. In italics. Uncreative, emphasized profanity.

It's wicked fuckin' catchy.

The blistering minor-key changes in the chorus, the skanky bridge, and the passion in Leo's voice are all unshakable. Songs don't come equipped with hooks meatier than "Me and Mia". When they sink their curved, metallic spikes into your auditory consciousness, setting off countless neurotransmitters of pleasure, you'll do anything to retain the sensation of that blissful first listen. You'll find that the repeat button (or, for those of you listening on tape decks, the rewind button) is the cheapest local anesthetic. If you think you can drink it out of your head, trust me, it's damn near impossible.

If you have problems making it past "Me and Mia" (and that's totally understandable, seeing as how the odds are stacked against Leo when what is possibly the finest song of his hallowed career kicks things off), allow me to fill you in on what the rest of the record's all about. Shake the Sheets is burdened with the unfortunate task of following on the heels of last year's universally adored Hearts of Oak. If Shake the Sheets lacks the subtle, nuanced excursions of its predecessor, it's redeemed by an urgent, unrelenting focus. Yes, Leo and his band (Chris Wilson and David Lerner) knocked out this record with the bare essentials of power-trio instrumentation. Yes, the production is slicker than black ice and effortlessly uniform. But Shake the Sheets is also bleary eyed and caffeine-stoked, empathetic and unfiltered, as majestically melodic as Jon Brion and fiercely topical as Joe Strummer. It's a clean, bright thunderbolt of self-expression, overwhelmingly electric like flood lights, and probably one of the best sets of no-frills, intelligent rock you'll hear this year.

While comparisons to Thin Lizzy and Dexys Midnight Runners are often evoked, Leo continues to follow more in the politically charged steps of Billy Bragg or Elvis Costello. His songs, instructed by the transcendent punk of the Clash and informed by folk and classic rock, are those of a storyteller who communicates in the panels of a comic strip artist. Leo wears his politics on his sleeve, but never gets caught beating them into heavy-handed awkwardness. Springsteen-isms like "Accidents mean no one's guilty / Ignorance means someone's killed" ("Counting Down the Hours") and "I wanna sweep the halls of arrogance" ("Shake the Sheets") sit comfortably next to insightful copses like "I could deal with trying to process pigeons acting like doves / But not with interference from the power lines above" ("Counting Down the Hours") and "Gold is just a trick of the light" ("Better Dead Than Lead").

Each song works its ass off to live up to the expectations set unreasonably high by the lead-off track. "The Angels' Share" pounds out a grinding disco/reggae groove like a washing machine on steroids. The instruments claustrophobically ping-pong off one another in "Little Dawn", Leo working some Mick Jones sweetness into the song's sour. The rabid guitar wrangling in "Heart Problems" fights to fend off the formidable melody, and it's a losing battle. Ghostly traces from disparate sources such as Irish folk, English New Wave, and the American South blend tirelessly into Shake the Sheets' uniquely Leonian DNA.

Leo taps into a web of frustration in Shake the Sheets that accompanies an idealistic or naïve belief that one possesses the faculties required to help or provoke change. Simply understanding a problem doesn't allow the problem's answer to materialize. An unwanted grip of powerlessness often accompanies sympathy and calls to action, evident in the weary "The One Who Got Us Out": "I put it to you plain and bluntly / I'm worried for my tired country".

Which brings us back to "Me and Mia", that song that launches the record into a string of shattered poeticisms. That scarred portrait of an eating disorder, its narrator's willingness to understand and reach out embedded deep within its simple story. "Fighting for the smallest goal / To get a little self-control," Leo sings, as dedicated to solving the problem as he is helpless. "Do you believe in something beautiful? / Then get up and be it," he adds, and you realize that the heart of Shake the Sheets beats not only for the world, but for each person in it.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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