[5 July 2011]
Leftover Cuties are a throwback band. They are trying as hard as possible to evoke the vocal jazz music of the ‘20s and ‘30s, pre-bebop era, post-Dixieland, and apart from big band swing. Singer Shirli McAllen takes most of her cues from Billie Holiday and she nails the mix of sultriness, power and a teensy bit of baby-doll chirpiness. With the vocals sounding at least reasonably accurate for the time period, the rest of the band falls in line. Songwriter Austin Nicholsen eschews the guitar and instead plays a ukulele, and he’s joined by Ryan Feves on the upright bass and Mike Bolger on piano, accordion and various horns. The other key to the band’s sound is drummer Stuart Johnson, who clearly took pains to put together a kit authentic to the era. He has a big, echoing ride/crash cymbal; a loose, deep snare drum; and a huge, booming bass drum.
The band announces their intentions immediately with opening song “Lost in the Sea”, a gently rolling tune that puts the focus on McAllen’s singing but buttresses it with a full clarinet section and extra percussion including temple blocks and a triangle. The minor key torch song “I Would” takes advantage of McAllen’s plaintive singing, but it really succeeds with the additional details. Bolger’s trumpet harmonies are great, as is the choral backing that comes in during the final 1/3 of the song. The prominent accordion and Arabian-style drums of “Everything I Got” brings to mind the French-occupied regions of north Africa, while the bridge sections of chromatic harmonies and arco bass from Feves give the song an even more exotic feel.
Despite focusing on one specific style of music, Leftover Cuties manage to find quite a few distinct sounds over the 12 tracks on Places to Go. The title track is a bit more contemporary than the rest of the album, in that its reminiscent of ‘50s doo-wop and early ‘60’s girl-group pop with its bouncy beat and stylophone synthesizer. “Not One” is a slow, dark song, made more eerie by Johnson’s restrained cymbal rolls and the quiet use of singing saw in the background. “By Morning” is a gentle blues track that finds Nicholsen subtly using hollow-body electric guitar under the chorus. The album hits its closing stretch with a pair of upbeat songs. The swinging “Should’ve Left You” is a catchy track that is crying out for a scat solo that never comes, and “Sunnyside” is appropriately the album’s brightest track. It’s not quite a reinterpretation of the jazz classic “Sunny Side of the Street”, but there’s definitely a resemblance in the music as well as the title.
Although this is their debut full-length, the band’s earlier EP has already paid dividends, with the song “Game of Life” being used as the theme music to Showtime’s cancer comedy, The Big C. With the retro-soul sound of Adele and the Americana of Mumford and Sons finding unexpected popularity in 2011, the time may be right for a band as anachronistic as Leftover Cuties to be a major success. Creatively, the band is in a good spot, as Places to Go has musical variety to spare while McAllen’s distinctive voice remains a constant. Nicholsen’s songwriting, while not a weakness, nevertheless seems focused mostly on getting the various early 20th century styles right, and not necessarily as much on finding emotional beats. This is the one thing keeping Places to Go from being a flat-out great album, but it’s at least a good one.