Set You Free
The context: Ted Leo will eventually be remembered as a sprawler—not because his discography is especially huge (so far, five Ted Leo And The Pharmacists albums, two full-lengths with Chisel, several EPs here and there), but for the way his albums plow through a sonic patchwork as distinctive as it is varied. Chisel, the DC trio he fronted before going solo, tends to get labeled as a "mod-revival" band, a description that grows staler with every track of its second and final LP, 1997's Set You Free. For "mod" nostalgia, see the Quadrophenia movie and leave it at that; The Jam shows through plenty in Chisel's anxious rhythms, yet no one influence could dampen the variety of a band equally confident bouncing along to amped-up soul ("It's Alright, You're O.K.") and simmering punk to an ominous growl ("Privileged & Impotent"). Drummer John Dugan and bassist Chris Norborg, not to mention Leo's own guitar work here, don't often hint at the grand tension Leo found later with The Pharmacists. Chisel played it a touch looser, treating all but its most punk-ish moments with playful swing and a little syncopation.
The greatness: The 17-song Free sounds more focused and patient, oddly enough, than its 14-song predecessor, 1996's 8 A.M. All Day. In contrast to 8 A.M.'s hook-at-will impulses, Free takes a little more time to build the tension on its opener, "On Warmer Music." Leo, often the man with punk's prettiest falsetto, starts out singing in a low register over mute but hotly distorted chords. Then the band kicks into the album's only super-earnest chorus: "Get ready for the invasion, self-satisfied smug-rock nation / cheers for the young idea, so glad you're all here." Wisely, Free never tries to return to that climax. Only a few tracks later, Chisel is at the opposite end of its sound, going acoustic and drumless for "The Town Crusher," and capturing a wry, resigned Leo rarely found on his solo records. ("I've got to get up and get out of your way / and the best that I can do is take the easy way.") Switch-ups like that would reveal a lack of imagination in lesser bands; here, they reveal more and more of Chisel's strengths and shades.
Defining song: If any audience responds well to rock anthems, it's Leo's, and Pharmacists fans may quickly gravitate toward "On Warmer Music." That said, this is a Chisel album and not an "early Leo" album. Its odd marriage of aggression and glee gets a more complete hearing on "All My Kin." The Who, The Kinks, and The Clash (or any number of followers) could all have stumbled across this song's guitar hook at some point, but somehow didn't—it's one aspiring guitarists should start practicing after they learn "I Can't Explain." It nearly becomes a different song on a chorus of ska sloppiness and punchy horn breaks. Even in 1997, Leo knew how to thread catchiness into indirect lyrics: "If you should falter / my little altar boys and altar girls / then you will join me in the world / of those who wonder how to be so blind / and happy 'til the end of time." For Leo, all this would grow into a strong solo career, but Chisel's punk foundation—and the obvious joy it takes in pushing it into new comfort zones—make it more landmark than halfway point.