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Shake, Rattle and Vote!

 

Ted Leo/Pharmacists: Shake the Sheets

Lookout, 2004

Rating: 4.3

 

 

Posted: October 18, 2004

By Laurence Station

Favoring smart hooks over fiery polemics, Ted Leo's fourth solo release, Shake the Sheets, is a protest record that understands the role of a performing artist, first and foremost, is to entertain. Supported once again by his ace backing band the Pharmacists, Leo serves up his his most musically consistent album to date, capably melding message with medium on a record that doesn't merely complain about the state of the world but urges responsible activism (vote, write your congressperson, organize non-violent demonstrations) while displaying measurable growth in Leo's songwriting ability.

Opening with the raucous call to arms "Me and Mia," Leo manages to sound impassioned but clear-sighted: Change begins with the individual, he posits. Don't like the way things are heading? Fine, get off your keister and do something about it. On "The One Who Got Us Out," Leo admits to being "worried for my tired country" as he criticizes the current administration's rush to war. The health care crisis (especially relevant to those self-employed performers who can't afford insurance coverage) takes center stage on "Heart Problems," with Leo offering the clever turn "When you can't afford a broken nose / How can you afford to fight?" "Heart Problems" is an excellent example of Leo's progression as a songwriter/activist. He manages to make a stridently political statement without coming across as preachy or heavy-handed. (For comparison, listen to Treble in Trouble's anti-assault weapon invective "Abner Louima V. Gov. Pete Wilson" and Leo's subtler brushwork impresses even more.)

Some of Shake the Sheets' most pointed barbs appear on what is, appropriately enough, the album's finest moment (not to mention one of the best songs Leo has composed). Sporting a low-key acoustic lead-in before the rest of band joins the fray, "Counting Down the Hours" slams the infamous prisoner-abuse scandal in Iraq ("Accidents mean no one's guilty / Ignorance means someone's killed") while cannily addressing the larger problem of the definitively named (but hardly cut-and-dried) War on Terror: "I could deal with trying to process pigeons acting like they were doves / But not with interference from the power lines above." Leo deftly expresses the confusion and frustration of those Americans who feel protecting the country from terrorists doesn't necessarily give us the right to impose our definition of freedom on other nations, no matter how horrible its ruler(s) might be.

Recognizing problems isn't the same as fixing them, however, and Leo's got a few suggestions to get people moving toward change. "Criminal Piece" has no time for fence-sitters ("Peace and quiet is criminal while there's injustice in the towns"), and the emboldened title track is a classic demonstration anthem: "Roll out and make your mark! Put on your boots and march! Roll on and meet me where you'll find me doing my own part / Roll out your dented car / Maybe it won't go far / But if you do everything you can, well, babe, that's more than a start."

The lone pedestrian cut, "Better Dead Than Lead," dilutes some of Shake the Sheets' power, with Leo falling back on his irritating vocal tic of straining for falsetto notes well beyond his grasp. But that's merely a speed bump on what is easily Leo's best album since The Tyranny of Distance. Shake the Sheets proves his deepest body of work without sounding belabored, as the disheartened Hearts of Oak did. A line from the closing "Walking to Do" ideally sums up not only Leo's proactive stance but also his utter lack of cynicism at a time when such negativity could almost be forgiven: "As long as we keep our stride, I believe we'll be fine." There's a message that won't ever get old.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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