Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: “Bottled in Cork”
If nothing else, Ted Leo is an unlikely looking indie/punk rock icon: dress him up in a suit and tie and you wouldn’t think twice if someone introduced him as a company vice-president or the like. But don’t let that fool you, because Leo is a ferocious singer with a knack for poetic lyricism put to intensely buzzing guitar-based rock tunes. “Intensely buzzing,” you ask? Well, maybe not all of his songs buzz intensely, but many of them certainly do, and the rest are simply intense, whatever else they may be doing. He and the Pharmacists combine elements of the Clash, Thin Lizzy, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, and the Jam to create a modern-day indie rock that’s solid as Gibraltar.
Leo has shown an admirable consistency since his debut album, The Tyranny of Distance, in 2001; when I say “his,” I mean that although the Pharmacists matter, Leo alone is certainly the driving force behind the music, and when I say “consistency,” I mean “ability to write great music on every album,” not “sameness.” If you know his awe-inspiring look at international anti-American sentiment in the time of Bush, “The Ballad of the Sin Eater,” from 2003’s Hearts of Oak, you know how well he can crystallize his anger into a sharp nugget of buzzing intensity (see?). And he hasn’t let up: his most recent release, 2010’s The Brutalist Bricks is chock full of great songs that live up to his reputation.
One of the best of this newest batch is “Bottled in Cork,” which reads like a sequel to “The Ballad of the Sin Eater.” It’s a travelogue focusing less on alienation and more on feeling a bit more comfortable as an American traveling abroad in the post-Bush years. It almost seems like two songs: it begins as though it were launching into a rant, but then suddenly, half a minute in, it switches gears, becoming a jaunty, acoustic, almost feel-good tune as Leo realizes that there’s still hope for things getting better:
Your tribuneral mockeries of justice still dog my steps
Until I see that next smiling face
A little good will goes a mighty long way
One of the fun things about this song is to listen to Leo’s rhyming scheme: in the song’s call-and-response style, he rhymes the responses in groups of three, and doubles that at one point, when the first 6 lines of the acoustic section end with the same rhyme (ending in “_id”). The song ends with over a minute of the song’s final line repeated: “Tell the bartender, I think I’m falling in love.” So he may truly be feeling good about things, but this last line (and the song’s very title) hints that it may be a good feeling stemming more from imbibing one too many with his new-found friends, and it soon will pass. And knowing Leo, that seems the more likely probability.
As it turns out, there is a very funny, Monkees-inspired video for the song as well…