Charisma didn't play too big a role in late-'90s rock—not with the interchangeable pop-punk "number" bands, the dreary nü-metal balladeers, or even the smart but vocally challenged heroes of indie rock. In the past three years, though, teenagers who grew up on hip-hop bravado and teen-pop strut have gravitated to rock bands with lead singers who command the stage and put on a show. Enter Ted Leo, who forged his mod-evangelist persona when no one was really paying attention, as the leader of the '90s D.C. cult act Chisel. In his five years as a solo artist (with backing band Pharmacists), Leo has learned how to work political comment and sonic mayhem around melodic punk anthems. He found his stroke most convincingly on last year's Hearts Of Oak, where he gave the jumped-up sound of The Jam and Joe Jackson a prophetic vehemence.
The follow-up album Shake The Sheets backs down a notch, reverting to more of Chisel's bright R&B flavor while losing most of the high-volume panic that made Hearts Of Oak exciting, though not always accessible. Stripped down to guitar, bass, and drums, Leo's Pharmacists have found new ways to express emotional and musical complexity, as on the subtly explosive album opener "Me And Mia," which inserts brief reggae-like breaks and a sweaty, surging coda into otherwise straightforward power-pop. For the next 35 minutes, over 10 tracks, Leo exploits rock dynamics with the timing of a veteran stand-up comic. He bounces vocals across half-riffs, drops the drums in and out, and invariably holds back a little for the big finish.
Shake The Sheets doesn't have any one song as thrilling as last year's "The Ballad Of The Sin Eater," but the album maintains a steady momentum through songs like the anxious-about-America "Counting Down The Hours," the post-Fugazi "Criminal Piece," the blankly raging and wildly catchy "Better Dead Than Lead," and the everybody-pitch-in plea "Walking To Do." The centerpiece of the record is the pulsing, passionate "Little Dawn," a dancing-through-disaster mini-epic that proves Leo may be his rock generation's best hope for entertainment, information, and uplift.
Jimmy Eat World frontman Jim Adkins has his own burdens to shoulder, as a happily anonymous guy who happens to write personal songs with arena-filling hooks. Adkins doesn't yet attract the cult of personality that surrounds fellow emo king Chris Carrabba—and he probably doesn't want to—but judging by the band's new Futures, Adkins clearly doesn't fear massive success. Building on the momentum of the hit "The Middle" from 2001's fine Bleed American, Jimmy Eat World gives itself over to the post-punk sheen of producer Gil Norton, for a set of songs that muscle across Adkins' brokenhearted sentimentality.
Futures highlights include the opening title track, which crests over and over like an accelerated cycle of tidal waves; the swirling, frequently overpowering "let's take a ride" anthem "Work"; the resounding, U2-esque "Polaris"; and the stormy "Nothingwrong." The album's radio-ready polish might strike some listeners as soulless, but it's really just a different kind of soul. Jimmy Eat World and many of its emo counterparts translate teen angst and edgy rock into a suburb-friendly idiom, making soul-baring confessionals safe for high-school jocks. That's a job worth doing, and Jimmy Eat World does it as well as anybody.