Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
The Brutalist Bricks (Matador Records)
On "The Mighty Sparrow," the opening track from his Matador debut, Ted Leo sings "When the cafe doors exploded/I reacted to/Reacted to you." One would think a bomb in a doorway would produce its own independent reaction, but with Leo it makes sense that he'd catch the nuances of his companion's behavior among the chaos (whether literal or metaphorical, for that matter). Two things have shaped Leo into a valuable, punk-minded pop-rock artist during his nearly 20-year career: strong, highly refined songwriting skills and a deft touch with balanced instrumentation and arrangements. Few artists can toss pastoral acoustic strumming into the same mix as fuzzed-out keys and shotgun percussion without sounding unfocused. Leo pulls it off. HANNAH LEVIN
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists play Neumos on Fri., March 19.
The Big To-Do (ATO Records)
The hazard that accompanies the Drive-By Truckers' uncompromising strength as a live band is that its recorded material has a hard time living up to that sort of off, unhinged energy. DBT have had a weak moment or two; most fans agree that A Blessing and a Curse was a bit of letdown after a trio of fantastic records (Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day, and The Dirty South), and though 2008's Brighter Than Creation's Dark had some strong components, its sprawling, double-disc size made it a tad uneven.
Blessedly, The Big To-Do is their most focused and growth-oriented release since Southern Rock Opera. Sounding refreshed after taking a well-deserved break from touring last year, they turned out a baker's dozen concise, tightly crafted songs that cover their stock material: down-and-out drinking, domestic drama, the values of family, and their own life on the road. But they're also stretching a great deal musically, pulling in grander arrangements and deeper and more nuanced guitar tones, and, most notably, giving more space for bassist Shonna Tucker to truly shine—as she indisputably does on "You've Got Another," a simple but gorgeously executed ballad that finishes with a subtly sweeping piano coda. HANNAH LEVIN
Drive-By Truckers play the Sasquatch! Music Festival on Mon., May 31 at the Gorge.