The new Ted Leo album, “Shake the Sheets,” kicks off sounding like last year’s “Tell Bageary Balgury is Dead” EP; the singer-songwriter is accompanied solely by his lightening-fast punk strumming. Few can pull off the solo punk thing. The prospect is fraught with many pratfalls and humiliating accidents of confidence, both of which befall would-be open-mic revolutionaries on a nightly basis in college towns across the nation. However, the laser-precise guitar stabs and cleanly soulful vocals that Leo has honed form one of the precious few instances of success in this perilous genre.
And then, after just a few counts of solo bliss, The Pharmacists arrive. Pared down to a spare trio, eschewing the wall-of-sound keyboards and rattling percussion of 2003’s “Hearts of Oak,” bassist Dave Lerner and drummer Chris Wilson join Leo in the cacophonous transition from solo crooning to all-out punk onslaught.
Their sound is now especially tight sounding with all but the most essential layers purged from the mix. While the rhythm section is perfectly appropriate, the real star is, predictably, Ted Leo. As if his impossibly clear and acrobatic vocals weren’t enough to keep him busy, the guitar stuff he breaks out on “Shake the Sheets” sounds like how the web of amphetamine addled spider looks, intricate and efficient to the point of mania.
The songwriting is as strong as ever, with Leo deftly maneuvering the line between communicating strong politics and sounding like a preachy jerk. All in all, “Shake the Sheets” is a worthy chapter in the story of one of the most important American songwriters working today.