Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ ‘Hearts of Oak’ – A Look Back on a New Punk Classic
Ted Leo had been making records with one band or another since 1991. But it wasn’t until 2003 that ‘Hearts of Oak’ transformed him from super-obscure punk-rock dude to critically acclaimed indie rocker with a wide range of influences.
‘Hearts of Oak’ was Leo’s third album with the Pharmacists, the rotating band the Washington, D.C.-based singer-songwriter formed in 1999. On their second album, ‘The Tyranny of Distance,’ Leo began incorporating a bunch of different styles of music into his punk-inflected indie rock, including folk, pop, New Wave, Celtic and reggae. By the time he got around to recording ‘Hearts of Oak,’ he had the songs, too.
From the minute-and-a-half opening blast of ‘Building Skyscrapers in the Basement’ to the closing, near-epic ‘The Crane Takes Flight,’ ‘Hearts of Oak’ sounds like the work of a hungry new artist, not the 10th record by someone who had been plugging away at them for a dozen years. The highlight is ‘Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?’ a tribute to 2 Tone ska groups, particularly the great Specials, whose members and song titles are name-checked throughout Leo’s tune.
It’s an exhilarating moment on the album and one of the great singles of the ‘00s. It even managed to pick up some airplay on college radio stations working outside of the usual playlists. That momentum carries through the rest of ‘Hearts of Oak,’ which didn’t crack the Top 200 and sold about as well as to be expected for an indie LP by a relative unknown artist. But it opened up Leo’s career. Ten years later, he’s still with the Pharmacists and making hook-stuffed records based on ‘Hearts of Oak’’s genre-jumping template.
Watch Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ ‘Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?’ Video