Chris Leo is a secret great lyricist of rock music. As he has been releasing records for not far off 20 years without looking especially likely to stumble upon broad mainstream recognition – even to the extent of that enjoyed by his brother Ted (he of Ted Leo & The Pharmacists) – and has not appeared concerned by this, a secret it will likely remain. Yet the greatness is Scout's-honour true: Betrayal!, the 1998 album by Chris' third band The Lapse, has almost no refrains or choruses but a densely-packed outpouring of treatises on science, religion, sexual psychology and an unflinching self-examination. By the standards of late-century post-hardcore-cum-indie, or rock in general, his outlook is genuinely highbrow, but it comes encased in oddly infectious tunes. This is largely maintained on The Sunny Day I Caught Tintarella di Luna For A Picnic At The Cemetery, Chris' third album as Vague Angels. Rarely over these ten songs are we invited to rock out, but this New York-based hardcore kid-turned-novelist (his bibliography is nearly as long as his discography) still has that elusive elixir, the punk spirit.
Said spirit is channeled through folk and jazz to begin: 'So Lonely' is powered by mandolin of the sort REM needed to start troubling charts back in the day, while 'I Know An Altar' splits itself between triumphant trumpet splash and maraca-heavy percussion. Track three 'I Did Not Find You In Kips Bay' is actually a few years old, and appears, in slightly rougher form and entitled 'Murray Hill', on a split 12-inch with The Gang, from 2007. It was unquestionably the best of the three tracks on that release, and might snatch that accolade with regards to our subject today - assuming you're tolerant of your dub-laced post-punk being brutishly one-note. Leo takes us around his Manhattan neighbourhood, affecting the persona of the wandering, incident-prone minstrel who steals bikes and dances at 4am and buys dessicated coconut for reasons not revealed and "had one drink at Murphy's thinking that's what people do / But after one more drink at Murphy's I got that 'people' wasn't 'you'." The shoe-leather-decimating experience of the big city neighbourhood has to be one of the most heavily employed tableaux of literature, so kudos to a writer who chooses to sing his scene-setting instead of confining it to the printed page.
From there we're off to Glasgow city centre and 'Suisliding Home Down Battlefield Road'. Via semi-spoken lyrics and close-mic'd acousto-strum, Chris even manages to mention Dunfermline and Queen's Park in this one, in the course of getting into an argument and tossing off the I'm-not-saying-I'm-just-saying lyric "Our heroine has yet to arrive". (I'm assuming this all stems from the period he spent as a member of Glaswegian dance-punk band Pro Forma circa 2006; I helped to book shows for the band twice and have pleasant if distant memories of being in a nightclub post-gig with Chris, who was drinking Smirnoff Ice and hitting on many women.)
Despite (because of?) consistently altering lineups, none of Chris Leo's bands have entirely nailed a musical niche that could be pointed to and claimed as theirs. This speaks more of the breadth of influence than a lack of musical personality. Many songs here, such as 'Astringent Curse Of Ides Inverse' (understand he's having fun with these titles), could have appeared on anything issued by The Lapse or his previous combo, The Van Pelt, without seeming misplaced. Chris recorded this album with other musicians, but one feels that this was primarily for reasons of convenience; Vague Angels, prefixed with his given name for the first time here, is his muse. 'The Moon, The Metaphor', appearing near the end of the record, sees a certain gentleness take the place of previous taxing vibes - Chris gets up early, wants to be a dolphin, meets some eccentrics and tells you all about it over spindly post-rockish guitar.
Not every tune on The Sunny Day... connects, and some that do will take their time to show their faces, but the presence of tunes at all differentiates it from some previous Vague Angels output. As awkward and unmarketable as Chris Leo is, it's still great that he is tapping his own creative well, whatever the audience may or may not be. The score below is a fan's one, to an extent, which is to say that you should be a fan.
7Noel Gardner's Score