Aural Pleasure

Living With the Living
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
(Touch and Go)
Leo’s Manifesto

Ted Leo is an American Billy Bragg, a punk in the philosophical — rather than musical — sense. Both men are tireless activists who view music as a tool for sweeping social change, but tend to express their political anger with instantly hummable melodies.

 Living With the Living, the latest offering from Leo and the Pharmacists, doesn’t take long to claim its sonic turf. “The Sons of Cain” speeds up the Bo Diddley beat of Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” “Who Do You Love” suggests “I Fought the Law” as performed by a young Joe Jackson (with a pinch of Nick Lowe’s “Rose of England” sprinkled on top), and “Colleen” fills you with fond recollections of the Plimsouls.

In short, this album evokes a very specific period, that cultural hiccup between 1977 and 1982 when punk legitimized the economy and discipline of jangly pop, and when even the most tuneful pop bands delivered their hooks with a snarl.

Leo’s snarl scores most effectively with the anti-military screed “Army Bound”: “Some modest dreams they just don’t pay out/ some modest means don’t leave much way out.” He only stumbles when he opts for noisy dissonance with “Bomb. Repeat. Bomb” and creates a strident, self-important mess worthy of Scott Weiland’s lunkheaded showboating.

Leo tends to divide people, because he’s a forward thinker who also happens to be a musical classicist (the same could be said for Darkness On the Edge of Town-era Bruce Springsteen). He’s blasted as boring by those turned off by his old-school allegiances, and hyped as a genius by retro-fitters desperate to relive their new-wave past.

Leo is no genius, but Living With the Living confirms that he’s an expert craftsman with his passionate heart in the right place, and that’s nothing to snarl at.

— Gilbert Garcia

It’s In There Somewhere
David Thomas Broughton

Bring on the Broughton 

David Thomas Broughton is made of sticks and straw, his beard of twigs and bird nests, fastened together with mud. He is a tall, lanky, otherworldly creature, occupying, if not embodying, a tenebrous geography somewhere between Appalachia and the English midlands circa 1885, and somehow, also floating in and out of a spacy, wastelandic future. He can stun a room with his voice, and then crowd it out with increasingly complicated, overlapping loops. Down below, Robert Johnson is shaking his long-fingered fists up at the crust of the earth, cursing the Devil for short-changing him.

Not bad for a former data analyst and current office administrator from Otley, a borough of Leeds.

Broughton, in my mind, is the alpha, and possibly omega, of experimental folk. And no, the genre’s not an oxymoron; Broughton overlays gospel and spiritual vocals on acoustic guitar, rising to the kind of ethereal atonality natural to 1960s free jazz. His electronic loop pedal plays a third and equal part in all his music, and as a result, each song starts simply, softly, swelling in complexity and layers.

The process is as much a part of the art as is the composition. Broughton’s is an imperfect, rough style. The key, the time, are always just a little bit off, and the close listener can pick out the clicking of the pedal.

Broughton is more entrancing than catchy, but at the same time, completely inaccessible to the average listener. Underground critics received his first two releases, The Complete Guide to Insufficiency and the EP Anchovies, with near-religious passion. Fans collect every version of every song he’s recorded, the albums along with the live sessions.

Broughton described the 13 tracks of his current release, It’s In There Somewhere, to as a “restropective with snippets of instrumental pieces and recordings from the last six years or so,” and plans to follow it up later this year with 5 Curses, an album of all-new recordings.

— Dave Maass


The Third Hand


Personal growth is a marvelous thing. Everyone should attain it. But it can be painful for those involved — for example, those of us listening to R.J. Krohn’s newest album, in which the DJ/producer, who records as RJD2, decides to try his hand at singer-songwriterdom with puzzling, occasionally disastrous results.

In a way, this album completes the arc begun by his first two solo albums. On 2002’s Deadringer, he was a sample sorcerer rooted in hip-hop but free to roam around like a soundtrack composer. He pushed into rockier terrain with 2004’s Since We Last Spoke while maintaining his basic ties to beat manipulation. On The Third Hand, though, RJ overdubs his own live instruments on every track. He also — gulp — sings, in a tenor and falsetto, both so clear, light, and flavorless that they bring to mind weak tea.

So does the songwriting. One short interstitial track goes, “This is a wonderful time/ We’ve made for us/ Let’s spend the rest of it close/ You’re my ticket to the sun/ Someday I’m gonna make her a wife.” Whose wife, RJ? That’s not even the worst thing here, not when it has to contend with the dippy prog-rock pastiche “Laws of the Gods” — “Whoa, lazy man, you broke the laws of the gods” — and “Have Mercy,” which contains the most ineffectual utterance of the phrase “goddamn it” on record. Even the instrumentals, an area the dude should ace, evaporate on contact. Fine, RJ doesn’t find hip-hop fun anymore. But this tepid exercise isn’t even in the same area code.

— Michaelangelo Matos