Since disbanding the punk-fueled Chisel in the late '90s, Ted Leo has emerged as a pub-rock hero, championing everyone from the Specials to Thin Lizzy while also creating his own revved-up version of the real thing. His engaging knack for storytelling lyrics and infectious passion for punk rock and politics make him a completely compelling performer and songwriter. He takes something you might not think you had any particular opinion on -- say, the Squeeze catalog, Stiff Records, Split Enz and yet more Thin Lizzy -- and throws it back in your face, reworded and individually stamped and rebirthed into a song like "Timorous Me." And suddenly you're faced with the reality that the guy making you pump your fists and shred some air guitar happens to be named Ted.
After last year's Billy Bragg-esque EP Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead and his alarming vocal-cord blowout, Leo is back with a full-length that steals more from his days with Chisel: The songs are all marked by muscle and bluster, with only a few moments of expanded palette, like the Celtic-style soul of "Counting Down the Hours." It's not a revelation; Leo is at a place where he's been before. But the strong points remain -- check the melody on the opening "Me & Mia," or the section on "Little Dawn," where he sings "Stretch out your weary hand to mine, it's alright" before he seems to put a finger to his lips and "shhh" like it's no big deal. Leo is delivering old-school rock melodrama. All he asks is that you believe him for a little bit. Even during Shake the Sheets's unsteady moments, you really should.