If the worst that can be said of nostalgic music is that it makes you miss the original — and the best that it's merely an improvement — Ted Leo is still in a class by himself when it comes to relocating and reinvigorating the fiery spirit that produced the great sounds of the '70s and early '80s. Too tuneful and structured for punk but too brashly energetic (not to mention politically charged) for pop, Leo taps back into the innocent spirit that once drove bands, both great and small, into an amorphous and stylistically diverse movement, bound together by the common belief that they should play their hearts out, regardless of possible personal benefit. The same conviction, that putting everything on the line for the abandon and joy of electric music-making is a worthwhile goal in and of itself, was just as valid to the hardcore pioneers as it was to London new wavers, Midwest post-punks, primal garage rockers and unbridled power-poppers. None of it was about taming the id or turning down the amps to become more chart-friendly or contemporary, they were simply doing what felt right, as hard and fast as they could. It yielded some really great music. And it still does.
While there are a couple of tracks on the New Jersey indie icon's fifth album that sound seriously premeditated ("The Unwanted Things," which is sweetly sung to a dub-cut reggae beat; "The Toro and the Toreador," which might be a Culture Club oldie until Leo unfurls a crappy, speaker-shredding, Young-ian guitar solo), a lot of it feels purely felt in the most exciting sense. Leo doesn't so much channel the Clash, Jam, Soul Asylum, Squeeze, Plimsouls, 20/20 et al. (and that et al. includes some far less groovy blue-collar rockers, the kind who might not have understood the why but had the same faith; no matter), as begin from the same indignant righteousness and uncontrollable energy and build from there. On topics both personal ("A Bottle of Buckie," "Colleen") and global ("Bomb. Repeat. Bomb," "Fourth World War," "Army Bound"), the trio rips and snorts with articulate precision, scoring points with sharp lines and catchy hooks. Check "C.I.A.," the restrained "La Costa Brava" and "Who Do You Love" (which faintly resembles the Rumour's "Emotional Traffic"). "The World Stops Turning" and "The Lost Brigade" are among the highlights of an extremely strong collection.
Produced by Brendan Canty of Fugazi, Living With the Living is remarkably loud and fast, a headlong rush that would have sent needles skittering in the vinyl age, but Leo never loses his cool, and that only adds to the power. The balance of ferocity and control, of commitment and tolerance, of love and anger, never feels like tension here. It feels like life.