When Ted Leo asks “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” I picture the Mighty Mighty Bosstones skankin’ down to the unemployment office, but he refers by member names to those second-wave ska revivalists, the Specials. With “Blizzard of ’77″—a storm also known as the “blizzard of the [last] millennium” on some Web sites—Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws flashes back to buried cars and “tripping in 7-Eleven.” These tracks constitute the only explicit nostalgia on the exceptional albums they open. But this nostalgia, whether for two-tone or three hits of acid, predetermines the preoccupations of the polite, snow-white boys in question.
Where have all the dreamers gone? They’re certainly not the ones in da club, resuscitating rock, or keeping metal new. (Pot smokers don’t count.) Look: If you had one shot, one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted, would you capture it, or just let it slip? (And Dr. Dre says . . . Nothing, you idiots, Dr. Dre’s dead, he’s locked in my basement!) Our frontboys would likely give two different answers to that one. On Hearts of Oak, New Jersey’s Leo and his Pharmacists prescribe an Elvis Costello cocktail of gnarly guitar, dubby bass, and wild falsetto to counteract “gangsters and clowns with a stereotyped sound.” They’re talkin’ ’bout a revolution. Let Go, Brooklyn trio Nada Surf’s lovely third album, follows a Secret Life of Walter Mitty pattern, in which everyday activities prompt consuming fantasies. Every song glides down this slippery slope.
In 1996, Nada Surf hit with the brilliantly deadpan alt goof “Popular.” The song’s video—essentially a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” update for arch times—satirized high school life with smiling cheerleaders and, in a move that prompted the school whose campus the vid was filmed on to sue, jocks winking at each other suggestively in the locker room. Today, singer-guitarist Caws plays the college graduate waiting for opportunities in love and life while listening to old records—he names a song after Blonde on Blonde, harmonizes like a Beach Boy, and pretty much uses “Michelle” as a blueprint (even daring to sing in French on “Là Pour Ça,” mon dieu!).
Emerging from “Blizzard of ’77,” Caws leads his band—dreadlocked bass whiz and backup singer Daniel Lorca and cowboy-hatted drummer Ira Elliot—into the molasses-fed Buzzcocks nick “Happy Kid,” lamenting, in a bittersweet little break, that “there’s always too much sun/or too much snow.” Avoiding the weather on “Inside of Love,” he watches “terrible TV” that “kills all thought,” then he gets “spacier than/an astronaut,” while his reverbed guitar pulses gently psychedelic radar love that just bounces back.
One difference between Caws and James Thurber’s Walter Mitty is that Mitty never imagined himself as an astronaut. A military commander, surgeon, and, finally, victim of a firing squad, sure, but not a rocketeer. Quick-witted readers might attribute this to there being no space travel in 1941, when the story was published. Were people golfing on the moon, rest assured that wannabe hero Mitty would’ve pictured himself doing the same, maybe after seeing his wife sitting under the salon’s helmet-style hair dryer. Of course, nobody’s moonwalked since the ’70s; Caws simply feels adrift. In “Hi-Speed Soul,” Brooklyn’s best dance-rock track since the Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers”—replete with a party going on in the background during the breakdown—he wonders, “Do you ever feel like you just landed on this earth?” then describes joining the “creatures” on their “dancefloor” until “suddenly it’s tomorrow/it’s not today anymore.” It’s called rolling to Danny Tenaglia, Matthew.
Let Go‘s most literal flight of fancy finds Caws sitting for a meal, his acoustic in a ho-hum strum. As he notices “a swarm of fruit flies” by a bag he’s been “too tired” to throw out, the mood suddenly shifts; instead of picking notes, he softly beats the strings, summoning chords with ghostly reverberations and a hollow backbeat. “I’m sorry,” he offers to his difficult-to-exterminate friends, “you’ve got nowhere to go-o-o-o.” Then, with a whoosh of raspy guitar and dense, insistent drums, he’s actually looking through a fly’s eyes—”geometric patterns/ smearing out of control”: “left, straight; right, straight . . . only have enough gas left/for the beer can to the bowl.” A great asset to gene research, thanks to their quick generational cycles, fruit flies are usually thought of as pests. Who are we to blame them if, in their secret lives, they’re nostalgic for this morning’s jam-dolloped drifts of cold porridge?
In the grand/self-aggrandizing tradition of protest-rock, Ted Leo fancies himself a fly on the wall, dive-bombing into the ointment. His lyrics read like a lexicon, loaded with 25-cent words 50 Cent’s never heard of like they’re a dime a dozen: abjure, apostasy, beatified, commiserate, flâneur (French!), fungible, historicity, manifestation, misapprehend, ossify (in a chorus!), propaganda, therebetween (not even in the dictionary!). The man speaks his mind; it’s just full of jerkin’-off-with-Jergens jargon.
And yet, Hearts of Oak sounds anything but wanky. In the mid ’90s former hardcore kid and Notre Dame graduate Leo anticipated the ongoing mod revival with his D.C. outfit Chisel. His three subsequent Pharmacists albums, acclaimed by dull, white power-pop purists, barely hinted at the boisterous pub-rock he so gleefully inhabits today. Via Thin Lizzy, the Jam, and Costello, he extends both soul and sound, so unwilling to privilege either song or sentiment that the feverish tension between the two sweats out almost every accidental half-truth and false note. Even the way he shows off his vocabulary resonates: abjure, beatified, and fungible are all pulchritudinous words on their own, miniature musical scales unto themselves. Under Leo’s bite, they transcend ornamentation.
Led by black Irishman Phil Lynott, blue-collar rockers Thin Lizzy pre-dated punk and were therefore rendered irrelevant by it; later, outsider punks Costello and the Jam crossed over into literate pop. The perfectionist Pharmacists—drummer Chris Wilson, bassist Dave Lerner, and organist-pianist Dorien Garry—meticulously groom these roots, entwining snappy, reggae-cut rhythms with shamrock-ringed guitar treble. The nails-on-blackboard violin, droning bass, and carefree whistling of “The Crane Takes Flight” burst into fleeting chord-kicks and melodramatic melody; “Hearts of Oak” grooves like “Watching the Detectives” at twice the speed; and “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” jabbers gaily, with menacing undertones.
Leo, quick-witted readers will notice, dreams not of space or insects but a brotherhood of man. In “The Ballad of the Sin Eater” he travels the world—Belfast, San Sebastian, “Mother Russia,” Damascus, Kigali—and, back home in Jersey (or is it Sierra Leone, he wonders—shit, I thought I lived in a bad neighborhood), spits at his fellow Americans: “They hate you, they hate you ’cause you’re guilty.” Let him explain in “The High Party”: “I’m looking at another day to find that I’ve got nothing to say/or I’m looking for another way to process what happened on that birthday”—Leo was born on September 11. The “shitty war to fight for Babylon” he feared has, of course, begun. (Those Irish-folk touches sound all the more poetic for coming from a society beset by religious violence.) Who are we to blame him if he’s nostalgic for last millennium?