While you may not be able to judge a book by its cover, you can often judge a band by its album art. Take, for instance, the indie rock group Chisel and its main songwriter, Ted Leo. Chisel's debut full-length, 1996's 8 A.M. All Day, featured a cover with a messily drawn organ and lopsided lettering, suggesting tunes so rough and propulsive that they threatened to burst like a piñata. The following year the Washington, D.C.based trio released Set You Free, accompanied by an arty, black-and-white photo of an airport landing strip and song titles set in careful block lettering. The record was far more expansive, a semisuccessful attempt at epic mod rock, horn-driven soul, and acoustic folk.
When the band broke up in 1997, many listeners expected Leo to follow his pop instincts and release a bunch of commercial tunes in a breezily detailed white cover. Instead, he resurfaced two years later with a new first name (Tej) and a record, Rx/Pharmacists, that was an unholy mess. Leo smothered his melodic tunes in feedback noise, whacked-out samples, and messy tape loops, making them nearly impossible to sit through. Naturally, the album art followed suit, with dizzying green and yellow stripes and an alien figure in the distance.
Fortunately, Leo's latest release — The Tyranny of Distance, on Berkeley's Lookout! Records — is a return to his Chisel heyday. Gone is the sonic trickery of the previous album, replaced by a studio sound that embraces both the immediacy of 8 A.M. and the structural expansion of Set You Free. There's rushing jangle (“Under the Hedge,” “Parallel or Together?”), some sexy crunch (“Squeaky Fingers”), and a dead-on ringer for the summertime '70s rock of Thin Lizzy (“Timorous Me,” in which Leo can't resist a stuttering chorus). Spending all that time in the nation's capital has hardened Leo's lyrical resolve as well: Alongside the bitter love songs are reflections on Ebonics, internal DMZs, and governmental abuse. And — surprise, surprise — the album art is as apt as ever: The cover shows a whale gracefully leaping out of the ocean, as if Leo himself were rising from the murky depths of his recent past.