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CD of The Week

Week of 9/11/17

    Ted Leo - The Hanged Man (self-released)

    Ted Leo has had a rough go of it, personally and musically, since his last record The Brutalist Bricks in 2010. In that time, he split from his record label, been financially forced to move out of Brooklyn, confronted traumatic, scarring childhood incidents, come to terms with the death of his infant child, and struggled with musical identity and importance. All of which are addressed on his new album The Hanged Man.

    One of the most omnipresent acts in DIY rock, Leo had only been in the spotlight recently as half of The Both​; his project with Aimee​Mann​. In his new Rhode Island home studio, he methodically wrote, recorded and mixed his new album with an expectation-free mindset. He worked to craft something deeper, more diverse and emotionally raw than anything in his past. He has had plenty of material to draw from, as he told Stereogum, "I've lived more in the last seven years than in the previous 20."

    Leo also decided to release the new material via Kickstarter, raising over $165k. Those backing fans will not be disappointed with tracks like the arena rocker "Anthems of None" and the fuzzy power chord- and falsetto-heavy "The Future." He also gets personal on two upbeat driving tracks, "Run to the City," which is about he and his wife leaving Brooklyn, and "You're Like Me," which acknowledges the heavy topic of being a young victim of sexual assault.

    It is this complex mix of emotions and diversity in storytelling that draws in the listener's attention. The 14 tracks comprise about half of the arsenal he initially wrote for the album. Rather than make another traditional power-pop album or go completely dark and depressive, he decided to take bits from both categories. The sunny "Little Smug Supper Club" follows the formula of an Aimee Mann singer-songwriter tune. "William Weld in the 21st Century," and "The Nazarene" are slower songs that would fit on a Ben Folds Five record. "Can't Go Back" sounds like one of Folds' upbeat, blue-eyed soul tracks. And the complex "Gray Havens" is a delicate lullaby reminiscent of late-period XTC​, complete with lush orchestral strings and desolate vocals. Then around the two-minute mark, a jarring drum machine kicks in, like an un-muted pop-up ad. The song concludes and a typical guitar section seems to start off the next track. But the trick is, it's still the same song. For the final 40 seconds, we are gifted with an extra bit of unrelated, rocking-out melody. It is an odd composition worth hearing.

    At the record's base is the tragic loss of Leo and his wife's newborn daughter, which permeates throughout. Hints are dropped here and there and subtle poetic verses suggest "I couldn't protect her from this life and all its pain" on the stripped down, demo-like "Lonsdale Avenue" and "this world is not for you" on the sludgy, droning opener "Moon Out of Phase." But the most heart-wrenching song is the album's final track; the slow sleepy waltz "Let's Stay on the Moon." Leo has cited it as "the epic spiral of the record, and the most depressing song I've written." Through lyrics like "We had a daughter, but then she died" and "Watch the Earth go down," Leo regurgitates all the feelings most humans would stuff way down inside, exposing pure vulnerability for all to see. The song somehow carries a thread of optimism as well, as it grows into a gospel-like crescendo. You sense that Leo knows sadness will well up should he pause for even a second.

    Lend him your support as he somehow performs these songs without breaking down into sobs at Union Transfer this Thursday, September 14th. I'm not crying, you're crying.
    Review by Shepard Ritzen

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