At a certain point, a band becomes an archetype. Take it from a guy whose college rock band busied itself ripping off as many of our favorite indie acts as possible. We had our Pixies song, our Belle & Sebastian song, our Strokes song, and several Pavement songs, among other obvious “homages.” This wasn’t always conscious or intentional, but these groups all loom large over entire subgenres, and they loomed large over us too. And although I cannot say for sure whether Ted Leo ever inspired a wave of copycat bands, he made such an impact on us that we went ahead and ripped him off too.
Leo’s intense falsetto flailing is not so easy to replicate, though. As I soon learned, trying to pull it off was a fool’s errand. The guy is a barely contained ball of energy on the mic. He sings like every muscle in his body is clenched, every word is an urgent message, and every breath could be his last. He got that from hardcore, I’d guess. Leo got his start in the New York hardcore scene, forming the band Citizens Arrest shortly after he finished high school in New Jersey. Then it was back to his birthplace of South Bend for undergrad at Notre Dame, where he started Chisel, the punk band he’d continue to front for most of the decade. There were other projects along the way: Animal Crackers, Puzzlehead, the Sin Eaters. Other cities too: DC, Boston, DC again. Attempt to chart out his whereabouts in the ’90s by cross-referencing various online biographies and you get a sense that he moved as busily across the map as his voice moves across his songs.
Technically speaking, The Tyranny Of Distance is not the debut album by Ted Leo & The Pharmacists. 1999’s tej leo(?), Rx / pharmacists is the official first Pharmacists LP, but neither its contents nor its personnel reflect what the band would become. The album is mostly a solo effort and largely experimental, with Leo exploring dub and lo-fi sounds and often forgoing his signature vocals altogether. The following year’s scrappy and agitated Treble In Trouble EP inched closer to the Pharmacists sound and featured an actual band steeped in the DC punk scene: Jodi Buonanno of Secret Stars on bass, James Canty of the Make-Up and Nation Of Ulysses on guitar, and Warmers drummer Amy Farina, later of the Evens and Coriky. Canty’s brother Brendan, the drummer for Fugazi and Rites Of Spring, engineered the sessions. (Somehow, despite all those Dischord connections, the EP came out on Ace Fu.)
Leo used a rotating cast of players on The Tyranny Of Distance, released 20 years ago this Saturday. But if the album was not the product of a cohesive lineup, it sounded very much like the band that would make its mark on the next decade and beyond. Although recorded by post-hardcore luminary Brendan Canty, released on Lookout! Records, and written by a fiercely idealistic vegan, this was a punk album in spirit more than execution. Leo was culling influence from artists like folk hero Billy Bragg, power-pop icons Alex Chilton and Elvis Costello, classic rockers Thin Lizzy, and even Celtic rock. (Also New Zealand new wavers Split Enz, whose 1982 single “Six Months In A Leaky Boat” gave the album its title.) Tyranny‘s songs are bright and poppy and full of righteous guitar riffs, yet also sparse and twitchy and economical. There’s a nervous energy about them, a sense that a fuse has been lit and they might explode at any moment. Leo’s piercing vocals contribute to that combustible feeling — and when they do go boom, it’s incredible to behold.
Opener “Biomusicology” gives you the gist: skeletal yet driving, a deeply approachable melody unfolding over severe guitar strums, a quiet cello interlude that yields to a sonic fireworks display. The song is an anthem for touring musicians and restless travelers in general, the only life Leo had ever known. “All in all we cannot stop singing/ We cannot start sinking/ We swim until it ends,” he sang just before the finale. “They may kill and we may be parted/ But we will ne’er be broken hearted.” “Dial Up” and “Parallel Or Together?” find calm within rhythms so frantic you expected the band to keel over when the song is done. “Under The Hedge” bookends one of Leo’s prettiest pop songs with a tangled cascade of guitar heroics. The phaser-laden power chords on “My Vein Illin” deserve to be blaring from open Camaro windows, while “The Great Communicator” could be a Dismemberment Plan song, with a riff that culminates in jazzy seventh chords and a chorus that lets Leo wild out over surprise chord changes. “Stove By A Whale” was practically stoner rock, with vocal yowls that owed as much to Robert Plant and Chris Cornell as anyone in the DIY scene.
It was just monster jam after monster jam, and the most monstrous of them all was “Timorous Me” — not just Leo’s greatest song but one of the greatest in rock ‘n’ roll history. Under the heavy influence of Phil Lynott, he howled a nostalgic tribute to three close companions — his childhood friend Johnny, his late fan Timory Hyde, and his future wife Buonanno — all while banging out wide-open chords that coalesce into bluesy rave-ups like sparks flying off a racecar on a tight turn. The song was magnificently catchy and propulsive even before Leo’s band kicked in to send the music into overdrive, guiding him through meticulous lead work on the bridge and into the joyous final verse. His searing voice, that groovy guitar, the synchronicity of the arrangement: This is one of those songs so right and natural it feels like it has always existed. It flows, it surges, it soars. If I’m tripping over myself here, it’s only because words could never express the feeling “Timorous Me” gives me every time I listen, the kind of gleeful rush I sometimes forget is possible.
Despite the unsurpassable glory of that particular song, Leo would arguably improve upon The Tyranny Of Distance with 2003’s phenomenal Hearts Of Oak, and he’d go on to reach greater career peaks as the aughts rolled on. Among other career highlights, his live acoustic medley of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” is one of the more inspired relics of 2000s indie culture’s tentative embrace of pop. Since the final Pharmacists album in 2010, he has pivoted to projects like the Both, his duo with Aimee Mann, and The Hanged Man, the ambitious 2017 album billed as his official solo debut. At 50, Leo is a revered veteran presence, and he still absolutely brings it every time he steps on stage. And if he hasn’t spawned enough imitators to become his very own archetype, well, the album he dropped two decades ago is proof that this man is one of a kind.