Spring issue

March 18, 2007


With the winter doldrums almost over, record companies are emerging from their post-holiday hibernation to share some of the most exciting releases of 2007. Here's a look at three of the strongest albums so far this year, all arriving in stores on Tuesday.



Ted Leo, "Living With the Living" (Touch and Go)

Critic's rating: 3 stars

The most memorable moment during Ted Leo's set at last year's Pitchfork Music Festival came when the leader of the Pharmacists, exuberantly hammering on his guitar while howling about the values of true love and the evils of imperialism, cracked his head open on the microphone. The gash dripped all over him and his axe through the rest of his performance as he literally bled for his art -- the perfect metaphor for a sometimes sloppy but always earnest old-school rocker.

The New Jersey native makes no secret of his devotion to punk as it was practiced in the late '70s: Leo wants none of this emo nonsense, thanks, preferring influences starting with the Clash and Elvis Costello circa '77 and ranging as far as the Replacements seven years later. Now, after three discs with Berkeley, Calif.'s bastion of pop-punk, Lookout! Records, he moves to what was always his obvious home with Chicago's Touch and Go. Whether it's the change in infrastructure or his mounting anger at America's wars, he delivers his most vibrant and immediate album, lashing out in tuneful fury on anthemic tracks such as "Fourth World War," "Army Bound," "C.I.A." and "Bomb. Repeat. Bomb."

If Leo had limited "Living with the Living" to the mix of these political rockers and the melodic love songs that provide contrast and proof of a better alternative -- most notably "Colleen" -- he could have created a masterpiece. Unfortunately, he continues to try to show his range with genres he has no affinity for, including the Pogues-like pub-rock of "A Bottle of Buckie" and the dreadful stab at reggae on "The Unwanted Things." Of course, his hero Joe Strummer had the same problem, and it's as unfair to hold these missteps against Leo as it would have been silly to miss out on the Clash at its best.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists perform at 7:30 p.m. April 28 at Metro, 3730 N. Clark. Tickets $15.


LCD Soundsystem, "Sound of Silver" (DFA/EMI)

Critic's rating: 3 and a half stars

As a driving force behind the Brooklyn label DFA, DJ James Murphy already had established an enviable career early in the new millennium: His skills as a producer were so in demand that he rejected a plea to work with Janet Jackson, and he walked away laughing after disastrous sessions with Britney Spears. But Murphy is also an indie-rock veteran who's played in bands his whole life, and like Pharrell Williams with the Neptunes, he needed an outlet to display his own talents on the other side of the board.

Partly a collection of earlier singles, including the hilarious parody of underground hipsters, "Losing My Edge," Murphy's self-titled debut as LCD Soundsystem was one of the strongest albums of 2005 -- a collection of smart, funny, melodic and most of all hard-grooving dance-rock that referenced myriad influences from the post-punk '80s while sounding like nothing you'd heard before. Less immediate (it's a slower build) but ultimately no less rewarding, LCD's second album, "Sound of Silver," continues the hero-worship, and music geeks will have a field day naming plundered sounds and riffs: "Hey, there's a little Kraftwerk, and there's some David Bowie! He just name-checked Pink Floyd! And doesn't that vocal sound like Julian Casablancas of the Strokes?' "

As with LCD's debut, however, you don't need to know the rock-school references to lose yourself in the throbbing bass lines, cowbell-enhanced rhythms or unforgettable hooks of tracks such as "Someone Great" or "All My Friends," or to appreciate the cheekily sarcastic humor of the lyrics. "North American Scum" is a rousing anthem in the mold of Kim Wilde's "Kids in America," re-written as a self-deprecating response to those oh-so-sophisticated Europeans ("We build our planes and our trains 'til we think we might die / Far from North America / Where the buildings are old and you might have lots of mimes"). And the disc builds to a strong conclusion with the perversely funny torch song, "New York I Love You."

Here, at last, is an homage to the dirty, crime-ridden, X-rated but unique Big Apple that existed before Disney remade Times Square. "New York, you're safer / And you're wasting my time / Our records all show / You were filthy but fine," Murphy croons. This fellow New Jersey native couldn't agree more: I hate the new New York, but I love LCD Soundsystem all the more for singing about it.

LCD Soundsystem will play a 9 p.m. show on May 6 at Metro. Tickets are $21.


Low, "Drums and Guns" (Sub Pop)

Critic's rating: 3 and a half stars

I'm always surprised that Low, the other long-running indie-rock trio fronted by a married couple on guitar and drums, isn't accorded anywhere near the reverence shown for Yo La Tengo. Guitarist-vocalist Alan Sparhawk and his wife, drummer-vocalist Mimi Parker, have consistently made strong records since 1994 (this is their 10th album), successfully incorporating as many different twists and turns in their basic "slowcore" take on the Velvet Underground as Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley have with their slightly more upbeat homage. This time, Low delivers its biggest surprise ever.

Writing amid the already gray and foreboding surroundings of their native Duluth, Minn., Sparhawk and Rogers are even more depressed than usual as they survey the violent and ominous state of the world circa 2007, with war ever-looming in the background. "Cut free the weight on your neck / The screams, the clutching of breasts / So sorry 'bout the mess," the two harmonize on "Always Fade." Believe it or not, that's actually one of the more upbeat tunes -- at least there's hint of redemption in the choruses ("Some day you'll change / But you'll always fade").

If the bleak lyrics have always been a staple, Low's music has never stopped changing and evolving. A while back, Chicagoan Steve Albini helped the trio turn up the volume, most notably with "Things We Lost in the Fire" (2001). Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Sleater-Kinney) continued in that direction with "The Great Destroyer" (2005). But on the follow-up, he guides Low in immersing itself in grating, frightening, sometimes discordant and arrhythmic sounds influenced by the electronic terrorism of the Aphex Twin and the much-heralded "post-rock" of Chicago's Tortoise.

The combination of these artificial, otherworldly sounds with the beautiful and organic vocals makes for one of the most jarring but ultimately best albums of Low's career. Take that, Yo La.

Low performs at 9 p.m. on April 13 at Metro. Tickets are $16.