Despite being the little brother of renowned tunesmith Ted, and making music arguably as good as his for nearly as long, Chris Leo isn’t a well-known name even in hipster circles. Much of the blame for this obscurity lies within Chris’ music, which avoids the big hooks and leaping vocal runs that Ted peppers his songs with. With each band that Chris forms (Native Nod, Van Pelt, the Lapse), he moves further away from verse/chorus structure, choosing instead to lay his obtuse Sprechstimme monologues on top of complex guitar riffs that don’t always resolve. His music always rocked, but it was rarely catchy. Nonetheless, I found myself gravitating to Chris’ music in a way that I never could to Ted’s. Listening to the Lapse’s 1998 debut Betrayal! on my Walkman every morning helped make my junior year of high school mildly tolerable. I spent many hours combing through the lyrics, trying to figure out what Chris was talking about in his songs. When I couldn’t figure them out, I amused myself by trying in vain to play his awesome riffs on my guitar.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Chris’ newest project, Vague Angels, will raise his profile that much. Their sophomore album Let’s Duke It Out at Kilkenny Katz’ makes a clean break from his previous work in two major ways. The first is that it abandons the power-trio setup that gave his songs with the Lapse (and the best songs from the Angels’ debut album) such rousing bombast. Bass and drums only appear on two songs; the rest of Kilkenny is built around acoustic guitar, keyboards and hand percussion. There’s nothing on this album that will make you thrash around your room; the atmosphere is more “campfire sing-along” than “rock concert.” If you’re one of the people who enjoyed Chris’ previous music in spite of his vocals and lyrics, you’re not going to like Kilkenny. The second way in which Kilkenny diverges from his previous work is that it focuses on a subject you’d think he would be too cerebral to approach: love.
Despite the perpetually clever wordplay (“Evidence of absence/Is not evidence of absinthe”), there’s no getting around it: Kilkenny is a concept album about a breakup. Every song that isn’t instrumental is about a relationship, and the same woman’s name appears on three songs in different forms. Chris tries to look on the bright side on opening track “The Hollowed (Unhallowed) Whole Note,” only to end up feeling numb: “Her absence renders cleft the counting of the good times that were spent.” On the next song, “The Princess and the Newt,” he expresses frustration over his ex’s daily guilt trips. On “The Vague Angels of Vagary,” Chris seeks solace in the company of a woman he knows his ex hates. He finally breaks down at the end of “Just Blow, Don Quixote! Blow!.” While reading a book by the lakeshore, the depression kicks in, and Chris starts “pulling up grass/and pounding the earth.” The final song, “Too-Rai-Skippery-Dappery Day,” uses the interaction between sparrows and blue jays as a metaphor for the trickiness of romantic relationships.
Despite the gorgeous guitar playing and lovelorn lyrical outlook, Kilkenny may be Chris’ least accessible work yet. The songs move at a very slow pace, content to drone on for minutes before Chris starts talking. Once he does, he draws his words out and leaves long gaps of silence between them, stripping his sentences of the flow that they possess when read on paper. The CD doesn’t come with a lyric sheet, so unless you’re paying close attention to the music, all you’re going to hear is a guy listlessly moaning about nothing. Sometimes, the music unravels as quickly as the words do. “Just Blow, Don Quixote! Blow!,” for instance, sounds like the worst coffeehouse jam session ever, with a bassist who never got around to rehearsing the chord changes before walking on stage. Overall, this album’s a hard sell, but I still recommend it for anyone who is a fan of Chris’ previous bands, and anyone whose favorite Velvet Underground songs are “The Gift” and “The Murder Mystery.”
Artist Website: www.vagueangels.com
Label Website: www.prettyactivity.com