Doctor, doctor

Ted Leo has the remedy for what ails your indie-rock heart.

Keri Carlson

On the cover of his latest full-length album “Hearts of Oak,” Ted Leo and his band the Pharmacists stand awkwardly for the camera in bright green soccer jerseys. Instead of the professionally poised team that tucks in their uniforms and straightens their shoulders to provide some “don’t-mess-with-us” intimidation, the Pharmacists shyly half smile and squint, all looking in different directions. It is obvious Leo is on the underdog team.

There is no need for pity, though. Leo realizes his team will never make it to the World Cup or a major label. And he’s perfectly fine with that. That’s not why he plays. For Leo it is not a matter of winning but being able to play by his own set of rules.

The urgency and motivated energy found in Leo’s late 1980s hard-core band Citizens Arrest stayed with him through his (before retro was ‘in’) mod-punk outfit Chisel and still emerges with the Pharmacists. “Bridges, Squares” passionately cries, “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.” Leo creates an odd yet captivating sound by turning speedy and up-tempo guitars that reach back to his punk roots into glistening melodies that happily jangle. His active spirit and sharp intellectual wit combined with a cunning sense for a pop hook should be enough to earn Leo a massive fan base and even a spot on the Billboard charts. However, Leo’s rally cries are not simple and direct, not easy for mob mentality to adopt. He does not demand that you join his revolution; rather, he invites you politely.

The title track, which could be Leo’s anthem, begins with a heavily 2-Tone influenced punk rumble reminiscent of the Clash to give a sense of dissatisfaction. Sprightly layered guitars counter the beginning’s darkness for a mix between resentment and hope. Leo assertively lets you know that “No weak heart shall prosper!” before batting his eyelashes and asking in a quivering shrill, “Won’t you stand up for the Hearts of Oak?”

Leo’s lyrics roam from very personal and self-reflective to political and universal similar to the style of Elvis Costello. It makes Leo seem timid and somewhat emo at first, but he always turns his feelings into a biting statement on society. “I’m a Ghost” opens with Leo’s sweet falsetto crooning, “I want you to come close/’coz I don’t want you to miss me and misquote,” and breaks down into a gritty bark of, “You can’t make a sound from six feet underground.”

Leo does not spoon feed his messages, which results in more meaningful and lasting pop yet smaller record sales. He is one of those artists that you feel everyone would eventually learn to love if they gave him a listen.

And just maybe the Ted Leo story will take a “Mighty Ducks” twist and find the underdog winning.