To look at Ted Leo, you wouldn't necessarily peg him as a pop songwriting giant -- he's demure, even unassuming in an '80s punk sort of way, and what's more, there's no megalomaniacal ego that hits you fifty feet before you reach him. Perhaps that's why so many people, from blue-collar stiffs to intellectual giants, are drawn to his thoughtful yet quirky narratives. But hidden beneath that inconspicuous façade is one of the most enigmatic songwriting talents of this generation -- perhaps even his generation's answer to both Paul Weller and Joe Strummer.
A strong contender for album of the year, Shaking the Sheets is a masterpiece of fucked-up mod pop: political but not preachy, insistent yet never twitchy, respectful but never blatant. Pared down to a watertight three piece, Leo and his Pharmacists are the living embodiment of the Jam's ferocious energy, a fireball of punchy choogaloo riffs and rocksteady rhythms topped off with Leo's strident snarl and ear for perfect adjunct melody. He mirrors the modfather's love of both Motown and Sham 69 on the vertigo-inducting title track, its rubber ball soul licks overwhelmed by feedback and button-down rhythms that sound as if they were swiped from (Booker T. and the MGs drummer) Al Jackson himself. It probably all sounds too good to be true, but after the first four bars of opener "Me and Mia" blasts from your speakers you'll be hooked for life, giddy joy spilling from every pore, a devoted Leo-phile until the bitter end.
It's hard to believe that Leo's songwriting could have improved from Hearts of Oak, but he's tightened the screws here, firing off eleven absolute corkers in just forty minutes' time -- hooks big enough to snare marlins, frantic-yet-soulful guitar rave-ups and rhythms so crisp you'll swear they'll break on contact. "Little Dawn" should be a #1 single, ousting some Neptunes production or Britney clone from the top spot, but instead it'll have to live in infamy as the greatest song in Leo's amazing canon, bettering even "Where Have all the Rude Boys Gone?" in terms of sheer blinding melodic fury. "Counting Down the Hours" and "Bleeding Powers" are both catchy as fuck, politically charged sing-alongs, buoyed by Leo's skittering guitar work and megaton choruses. The whole albums fires past at such a bracing clip that you won't have time to stop and catch your breath until the final strains of "Walking to Do" fizzle into dust and you're ready to relive the whole thing all over again.
At the tender age of thirty-three, Ted Leo is an elder statesman, a crafty veteran who can reach into his bag of tricks and pull out gold every time. While Chisel were one of the most underrated bands of the last decade, nothing Leo did during that period ever hinted at the kind of tossed-off Bohemian romanticism that bleeds from Shaking the Sheets. It may seem incautious to gush about a record so, but it's not every day that something this raggedly beautiful drops into your lap.