Review Summary: On this release, Ted Leo matures as a musician and songwriter and delivers his coming out extravaganza, full of infectious melodies and great lines.
Before I can describe the band, this album, or anything to do with why I'm writing this, something must be understood:
While the comic presented depicts a fictional circumstance and has nothing at all to do with Hearts of Oak
, it must be known that the comic gets the point across that Ted Leo really rocks, like really. This ability to rock can be viewed as a good or bad thing, I mean rocking like that is great, but can it be contained? Since there are about no cases ever of a CD actually rocking someones face off, the point can be made that there is no need to fear for your facial features. Hyperbole was the main language spoken in the cell animation, the disc has a limit to how it rocks but that limit is not that of separating skin from face.
With the existence of Mr. Leo being quite the musical shape shifter, being a producer, solo artist, and traveling guitarist, it was not expected that he could forge an album with such standout songwriting, musicianship, catchiness, and replay value. On this breakout album he would really position himself as an artist to be known to do all of the preceding, while mixing in elements of punk, rock, songwriting, and folk. The brand of being able to incorporate many styles into one album is one that is given out often, and while mostly is true for the given work, some parts of the equation are sometimes not equal. The specific sounds of a style (take for instance, the horn section of ska) may be in place and blaring but the aspects of another genre may offset it and people won't know what to keep in mind when thinking about the work. In other cases, the songwriting of folk may be in place but it lacks the accompanying songwriting and instead goes with a sub par rock style of it. The mismatches that often occur on these types of albums are not a thorn in Ted Leo's side here, as he plays matchmaker while getting very involved himself in making an album of different but similar songs that sound like each one could be the breakthrough hit, and this thought only ending after the final track plays.
This work begins with the statement maker, but sometimes unnecessarily trashed Building Skycrapers in the Basement
. Like most introductions it serves as the first track of the disc and gives a short break before the long ballad songs are allowed to begin. How the use of Skycrapers
differs from traditional openers is that is not placed in there as random blips of noise, meaningless spoken words, or wanky and improvised (re: bad) melodies. Instead this functions as a perfect introduction to this work, merely sampling in the music that is to come, less technical and more of Leo singing a few lines. It's small but the lyrics and the buildup are very effective in making anticipation for the rest. The line " out from under layer after dark layer/as the years go by/a little girl can grow" perfectly overshadows the emergence of Leo as (not a girl, but) someone who uses his time around crawling in the big New York scene finding himself as an artist by playing different roles in the scene, and eventually "glowing".
Among many of the other main and strong features this album contains, the words used to put it together is one that is constantly in play and utilized. It is in effect from the very beginning introduction piece and continues on the next track, Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?
. His continuing critique of the current music scene is well in effect on this number which quips of " Gangsters and clowns with a stereotyped sound/It's coming like a ghost town - someone always knew it". Interpret it as you will but it seems to iterate the repetitiveness of mainstream music while not dropping names but while lightly going over the felons behind it (gangsters? clowns?). While he is certainly not the first person to make mention of the current music scene, he does it in a way that the message is commonly overlooked but still serves as a great lyrical foundation. Looking for more? It can be found on the very next track, The High Party
which dives into political commentary without need to change the flow of the album. Being a born New Yorker and this being from 2003, it seems natural to be "looking for another way to process what happened on that birthday" (Ted Leo's birthday is September 11th) and as an American to remark "if there's a war/Another ***ty war to fight for Babylon/Then it's the perfect storm in a tea cup" in response to Iraq involvement. As the previous song is, this message is hidden by an overshadowing title and chorus line consisting of "being too tired to turn the lights out/And too drunk to drink more". While this may only appear as clever wordplay, it is one of many sensational lines in this work that make it so memorable and quality.
Though not even needed, lyrics are only part of the package brought in this work. These well penned words would need music to keep up with it but not to get too close as to make the music one dimensional. How does this work out then? By making the music compliment the lyrics by being separate from them. This is the part of the music where the rest of the band makes themselves known and heard; weather is be Dorien Garry's organ solo on The High Party
, Chris Wilson making half the chorus on Ballad of the Sin Eater
, or bassist Dave Lerner taking the guitar part for most of The Anointed One
. Being a talented musician himself, and certainly not a slouch in the guitar department, Ted Leo also shines musically, opening The High Party
with a lick worthy of tabbing sites making "High Party Intro" tabs. Such as the rest of the pointed out highlighted features in the other songs by the other members of the band, it really doesn't stop there. Also similar to lyrics in taking a sample of the few to project the existence of the many, that is how that section worked. Lyrics have been noted to be multi-dimensional and the music to be worthy of playing under it while exposing each band member to take a piece of the musical pie (yumm).
The lyrics may be written out all nice and pretty and the music around to give the words something for them to be sung on top of, but how is the singing on this particular work? The singing is consistent enough with the words and the music to keep up with it, but it is not only that. The singing in some parts really makes the album and there are not few instances that validify that statement. Showing off his impressive range and making it a part of the music is what Leo thrives in and the music and work gets better as a result of this. Leo is a vocalist who can shoot up the octave on command and make it the standard for the work, such as in Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone
where his high pitches "Oohs" make the lines of " Ooh - but it's easy to see!/Ooh - we could dance and be free./Ooh - to that 2-tone beat!/But it looks like it's gone..." really stick out much more and throw away the plain label that may be slapped on him as a vocalist. His ability to sing and incorporate it in the music is really what makes it work, this album is sort of like a puzzle, and with the pieces of music, lyrics, singing, and intangibles (a section of people who "Clap and Whistle"!?), all of them seem well fit and create the picture that is Hearts of Oak
So what is it that makes Hearts of Oak
so special and memorable? Maybe it is because it displays the talent of a then lesser-known Ted Leo and establishing the bar his music makes. It is indeed this, plus the many lines both lyrically and musically that can be recalled with clarity from listening to it enough. Really, I cannot endorse this album more, its one of the best of the 00's featuring brilliant songwriting with very fetching melodies and an absolutely solid musical base thanks to the Pharmacists (oh and it won't really rock your face off).