Commodity merchants would have a helluva time marketing guitar rock this literate and invigorating. Hearts of Oak (Lookout Records) defies trend, pretense and contrivance while it beckons with unselfconscious honesty and intelligence. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists sound eerily reminiscent of -- yet are more straightforwardly rocking than -- that mid-'80s brainy power pop anomaly, Game Theory. As with that underappreciated band, the Pharmacists have a devoted cult following but are ultimately relegated to the indie rock fringe due to a unique-for-these-times sonic signature and a fervent optimism tempered only slightly by the current worldwide gloom.
Singer/songwriter/bandleader Leo's guitar playing is simple but inventive -- the variety of noises he manages to wrest from a largely unmolested electric six-string is cause for celebration. The flame of punk burns brightly here, as does a reverence for songcraft. Lyrically and musically, Hearts of Oak is vibrant, playful, melodic and infectious as hell (check into the irresistible shimmy vibe of "The Ballad of the Sin Eater"). Vocally, Leo proves he is quite adept and not at all afraid to go falsetto in search of that elusive note (on "Dead Voices," for example) even when it's perhaps not so advisable. The coda of "I'm a Ghost" elicits genuine chills.
On tracks such as "The High Party" and "The Crane Takes Flight," Leo cops a Costello vocal inflection to match his nimble wordplay. "The High Party" might just represent the heart of Leo's struggle as an artist -- reacting and writing effectively from a positive disposition in the face of war, decay and death ("if you're gonna call it art / then there's a cup in front of you and right away / if you're gonna play your part you must drink it down"). Further on, "Bridges, Squares" codifies Leo's stance with one defiantly upbeat chorus: "But it's not the time to ossify. / It's not the end of wondering why. / It's not in your faith or your apostasy. / It's not the end of history."
The lovely, lilting and quirky guitar-and-vocal-only ballad, "First to Finish, Last to Start," brings things down a tad, but Hearts of Oak never really lets up much on the intensity. It's quite relentless, really, and unshakable in its pursuit of passionate union and that twinkling, goose bump-inducing moment of perfect rock bliss.