Getty Ted Leo will headline a benefit show in Washington, D.C. next weekend…
- Posted on Mar 5th 2013 2:00PM by Nathan Mattise
Yes, it's a noteworthy album. It made the common musical themes of personal isolation and heartbreak universal for a generation. It also sold a ton, a tall tale for indie side projects these days. But before looking back with rose colored glasses and declaring Give Up the end all, be all for nostalgia in 2013, ponder this: Was it even the best album that month? A small social media groundswell recently answered in 14 characters: #HeartsOfOak10. The third album from the prolific Ted Leo and his Pharmacists hit its own decade anniversary on February 11.
For a quick critical snapshot, Hearts of Oak outdid Give Up in Pitchfork's Best of the Decade list (#59 v. #104) and was nearly declared perfect (9/10) by Spin, back when you could still roll it up to swat a mosquito. The album could do feelings of invisibility ("I'm a Ghost") but it also spanned topics such as urban sprawl ("Bridges, Squares") and ugly Americanism ("The Ballad of a Sin Eater"). It's all against the backdrop of Leo's unmatched ability to craft melodies and write rock that doesn't seem to age. Ten years brings with it a lot of new music, but Hearts of Oak is criminally overlooked to the point its own creator needed a quick reminder of this occasion.
"I don't remember if it was a blog or radio station, but some podcast-radio-blog station tweeted about it," Leo tells Spinner. "I had to kind of think about it for a second. I was like 'Oh yeah, they would probably know.' It definitely caught me off guard, I literally had just woken up and was checking my Twitter feed. Holy shit, 10 years to the day."
Leo may not be a name everyone recognizes. If you're reading this, hopefully that's not the case, but he isn't getting headlines in The New York Times. However, the impact Leo has on the loyal Pharmacists' fan base came through loud and clear that day. People chimed in about buying the album on vinyl before they even had a record player or saving replies to fan e-mails they sent to Leo around its release (in a Hotmail folder of course). Bassist Drew O'Doherty recalled sitting in for the group when they made their first (and only second to date), epic late-night TV appearance. Writer (and now online Editor in Chief at Spin) Caryn Ganz shared that Leo was included in her very first "Bands to Watch" piece for the magazine.
There were plenty of "I'm so old" refrains as with any piece of nostalgia ("I only have a limited amount of patience for that. No one is older than me when it comes to anniversaries of records," Leo says), but much of it was specific and genuinely meaningful. One fan even shared a transcript of some snail mail sent Ted Leo's way from 2010: "Listening to your records ... I realized it was fucking cool to be a completely genuine person and believe in things and want the world to be a better place."
"It's kind of a cool thing to hear, in addition to someone just liking your record, you contributed to expanding their horizons a little bit," Leo says. Hearts of Oak happens to occupy rarified air for Leo too.
"I find it one of the records I enjoy listening to more than the others," he says. "Very specifically, I think the songwriting it tighter than on Tyranny of Distance. I think my voice is better than on Tyranny of Distance. And I think there's kind of a freedom and aloofness to it that's missing from Shake the Sheets because times were much more desperate, everything felt so much heavier in the making of that record. So I'd actually say it stands up as one of my personal favorites in my own catalog too."
Unlike that other blast from the past, the anniversary of Hearts of Oak won't push Ted Leo to suddenly headline Coachella. There aren't plans for a reissue or even a tour behind it. Some Hearts of Oak B-sides may creep out the next time he hits the road with the Pharmacists, but that could be awhile. There aren't plans to release a new LP with the band in 2013 despite Leo approaching a three-year record hiatus -- an eternity based on his discography.
It's just Hearts of Oak, a bit like Leo personified, occupies a tough realm in the industry. He holds an intensely meaningful place for fans, but not so much for the bottom line.
"You know, frankly, I'm really happy to talk to you about it and a lot of people on my Twitter feeds were very kind about my anniversary, but no one else really gives a shit. It's just a nice personal milestone to go through," Leo says.
"Those two records, Hearts of Oak and Shake the Sheets, it seemed like the last era where there were enough people were buying records and it seemed like everything had paid off for us. Choosing to do things in a DIY, punk way as possible -- not selling songs to commercials, things other artists do to get money -- it was really nice for a brief window to have that kind of reciprocated through album sales.
"But that bottom completely fell out between Shake the Sheets and Living With the Living. I don't know, choosing to release a record in a traditional way and go through the traditional tour cycle, press cycle, etc. proved with Brutalist Bricks it's maybe not the most viable way to continue doing things unless you're already at a level where you're already selling many tens of 1,000s of copies in this current climate. And that's very few artists."
It's a sad reality for many of our favorites, but Leo's never been one to turn his back on his ethos. Part of that will always be spreading what he believes in through song.
And don't fret -- new music is in the works. Leo has been writing and even has too many songs but wants to keep at it. "I really want to let this one incubate and make sure it's really the record that I want to make," he says. For now, he's off to L.A. to get into studio with a different project: His recently announced band with Aimee Mann called #Both. The duo have a few dates lined up this month and while there's no definite time frame for a release, an LP "will come out before either of our next respective records that we release under our own names." But like #HeartsOfOak10, Leo holds no grandiose ideas here either.
"At this point, it's almost about not losing money," Leo says. "There's not an expectation or an attempt of any kind of mass breakthrough, it's just we are old and we are musicians and we want to keep making music, so that's what we're going to do."
A bit heartbreaking, right? Hearts of Oak never hit platinum, and the untitled #Both LP likely won't either. At least for a few days, fans had the chance to look back fondly at forgotten greatness. For now, it's back to focusing on what comes next and supporting what you love. Here's to celebrating more milestones in 2023.
Watch Ted Leo's Interface Session