It’s Washington, D.C., in the mid 1990s. The underground punk scene is thriving and mutating. A young New Jersey transplant named Ted Leo has arrived and is ready to do an about-face. Having previously multitasked in a variety of hardcore bands with names like Citizens Arrest and Hell No, Leo — a football jock turned socially conscious English major — is still light years away from The Pharmacists and “Me and Mia.”
What’s the missing link between Hell No’s grinding, abrasive “Cut The Artery,” and anthemic Leo classics like “Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead?”
Enter “Chisel” — a trio of Leo on guitar and vocals, John Dugan on drums, and Chris Norberg on bass. It was with Chisel that Leo found his footing and voice, and began his path as an indie rock troubadour seemingly incapable of writing a song that isn’t catchy.
Chisel cut one compilation of early singles (1995’s “Nothing New) and two full-length albums (1996’s “8 AM All Day” and 1997’s “Set You Free”) before disbanding in 1997.
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For casual Pharmacist fans looking for a quick fix of Leo’s seemingly bottomless reservoir of hooks, a trifecta of “Your Star is Killing Me” (from “New”), “Hips Straight” (from “8 AM”) and “It’s Alright, You’re Okay” (from “Free”) will get even the gloomiest scenester dancing.
To truly gain a sense of how Leo progressed from mosh-pit gang chants to hip-shaking sing-alongs, all three Chisel records deserve a spin in their entirety.
“Nothing New” is a rough, lo-fi and admirable start. Leo’s voice often sounds strained and ragged, though he sings with conviction throughout. “8 AM All Day” represents an astonishing leap. Leo’s Brit-rock and power-pop influences are fully realized, his phrasing and melodies have become more full and inventive, and he’s embraced his falsetto register.
“Set You Free,” is Chisel’s epoch. Leo’s lyrics are at their most creative and the trio’s energy is unyielding. Even acoustic-based numbers like “The Town Crusher” have an insistent drive to them.
Insistency is the musical thread that’s pulled through all of Leo’s music — hardcore punk, pop rock, folk, whatever the style. There’s a sense of real urgency. These songs are brisk, they are buoyant and they practically demand to be heard.
When Leo comes to Chronic Town, flanked by fellow Pharmacists James Canty on bass and Chris Wilson on drums, the set list likely will steer clear of Chisel material; after all, the Pharmacists have five critically acclaimed albums to their credit. A lively song, however, can never stay quiet for long. Here’s to hoping Leo’s newer fans will be singing along to Chisel in due time.