Ted Leo and the Pharmacists

Living with the Living

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It's likely you've heard Ted Leo and the Pharmacists—the band have been releasing records since '99 and they come to Seattle at least three times a year. Also just as likely, you've probably already made up your mind about the feted D.C. frontman and his Rx posse—you either adore them or you don't.

Your mind on the matter will probably never change. As an artist, Ted Leo is dependable, which is to say he isn't evolving. One Ted Leo record is much like the others—he offers new songs, but they're always delivered with the same familiar focus; often politically driven, his songs carry a strong message, but they're also catchy, bright, and full of his jangling guitar and optimistic voice.

For the record, I'm in the "I fucking love the hell out of Ted Leo" category—through his songs he's energetic, passionate, thoughtful, intelligent, and his music, while more trustworthy than innovative, is very good. Reliability in an artist ain't necessarily a bad thing.

Living with the Living, though, is the best Ted Leo record since The Tyranny of Distance (my personal favorite) because it's more diverse than his previous releases. This time around, Leo allows himself to explore a variety of emotions and ideas all on one record. He angrily calls bullshit on anonymous killing and faceless war tactics in "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb"; he coolly tries to reengage a weakening relationship on the lovely "La Costa Brava"; he was clearly listening to a lot of the Clash when penning "The Unwanted Things." And "Sons of Cain," well, that song just fuckin' rocks more than he's rocked in a while.

The band have pieced together a collection of songs that manage to represent their mainstay artistic style while fluidly shifting into new, or at least less traveled, territory. As much as I love the man's music, that's always something I've never thought of Ted Leo as being able to do. It's a pleasant surprise from a reliable old friend. MEGAN SELING

Black Milk

Popular Demand

(Fat Beats)

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Every region brings its particular paprika to the hiphop stew, but there's always been something about Detroit. MCs from D-Twah are world-renowned for their punch line-y, beat-freaking pedigree, but the thing that's always struck me the most about the D's hiphop is the sheer soul captured in the music. This has everything to do with arguably the greatest hiphop producer of all time, 313 native James "J Dilla" Yancey, whose shadow looms massively over Popular Demand, the newest album from Dilla's own protégé Black Milk. From the intricately chopped soul samples to the swing of the unquantized drums, Black capably keeps things true to his mentor. The stirring instrumental interludes, and the slew of veteran guest MCs from "The Mitten" (Slum Village, Baatin, Phat Kat, and One Be Lo), cast Demand as the unofficial sequel to Dilla's own classic Welcome to Detroit. A year out from Yancey's death, it's an excellent and refreshing throwback. Now if Black can just distinguish himself—that is, his beats from his mentor's and his rhymes from just about everybody else's—then he'll remain in—har har—popular demand. LARRY MIZELL JR.

Andrew Bird

Armchair Apocrypha

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Stuffy, fogyish, the bane of many a third-grader's existence, the violin has no place in rock 'n' roll. It made a nightmare out of "Daydream Believer" and nearly negated "Kashmir." Yeah, you can be a literate quasi-rock band like the Decemberists or Beirut and get away with a violin (or glockenspiel, for that matter), but the inclusion reeks of NPR and chamomile tea. So when Andrew Bird shows up with his plucky little instrument, his boyish whistle, and his clever overdubs, demanding a larger audience than the All Things Considered set, it's hard to give him the benefit of the doubt. If you've seen the Chicago multitalent's live set, you know he can work it both ways—intellectual, charming, and dignified; rollicking, rocking, and fun (sort of like the band he first gained fame in, Squirrel Nut Zippers). Bird's seventh album walks the same line—or rather chisels it deeper—yet ultimately fails to leave a mark.

That depth is due to a few factors: Bird's virtuosic, big-screen arrangements to his chamber-rock dramas, for one; heavy drums, for another, showing his concern for impact, countering the inherent levity of his quivering whistle (hard not to love) and ethereal violin (verdict's still out on that one). And lyrically, Bird is wry and insightful, imbuing everyday whims like air travel and Monday mornings with the weight and poetry of a patient observer.

And yet for all the sinuous melodies and bright turns of phrase, for all the grandeur and pathos, the music just doesn't stick. A couple tracks weigh in at five and seven minutes, losing focus halfway through as they delve into dense fantasy soundtracks. Only "Heretics," a staple of Bird's recent live shows, lingers after the album's last notes (a pastoral field recording mixed with brooding strings—a thoroughly beautiful tangent) fade away. It contains the strongest melody, the sharpest hook—assets Bird has wielded on previous albums to greater success. Bird's violin, vocabulary, and immodest ambition ensure you'll feel smarter while listening. They ensure also that only the most avowed listeners will stick around to absorb the entire lesson. JONATHAN ZWICKEL

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