When approached about her band's popularity, lead singer Kay Hanley of the Boston-based Letters To Cleo provides a mixed response.
"The upside is that I get to make records for a career," Hanley confides. "It makes me happy that this is what I get to do with my life. [But] I've never been good with criticism...the more successful you become, the more people want to knock you down."
For Hanley, a Dorchester native who grew up "very much a part" of the Boston music scene, these are the issues (along with switching labels and a rushed production schedule) that Letters To Cleo had to face with the release of their punchy third album, GO!. Assimilating these concerns into the band's expectedly tight, energized musical character, the record spits them back out with a controlled pop ferocity that few can parallel.
"GO! has more substance lyrically, the music is not as immediate, but there's a good payoff if you listen enough," Hanley modestly notes. Compared to the band's past albums, Aurora Gory Alice and Wholesale Meats and Fish, GO! "covers more ground musically and explores new territory within the confines the pop song has to offer." She deservedly touts it as "the band's best, ...a more complete album."
With all of these self-proclaimed nuggests of praise for the new release, Hanley never comes across as obnoxious or self-absorbed. An easygoing, conversational tone stamps out any question of pop rock pretentiousness--she is a normal person unaffected in her personal life by widespread radio airplay. Whether discussing her favorite Boston bands (Trona, Gravel Pit, Sterlings), pausing to discuss her mother's daily phone call or thinking about the dinner awaiting her, she is in every way a normal person.
By conveying a down-to-earth persona, however, Hanley only subtly hints at the intense emotion that fills her lyrics. When asked about the paring down of slower, more heartfelt songs that characterize Aurora and Wholesale, some of the excitement from within seeps out.
"We don't mean to be like that. On the first album (Aurora), some songs were very melancholic, mid-tempo, dark and moody...teenage poetesque," Hanley ponders. "It's a mood thing on this album...fast-paced and rushing reflects what we were feeling."
Frenetic energy is the dominant force propelling GO!--maybe not the most varied but definitely the most adventurous effort by Letter To Cleo. The album's opening right-hook "I Got Time" blasts off into the sonic stratosphere at the heels of Hanley's introduction, "that's the greatest picture I have ever seen/so I stole it for myself so you could see just what I mean/and this alluvial fan it represents my life/I've go the strength the move but...why should I." The beauty of her songwriting lies in its mystery--are the lyrics scatter-brained, piecemeal irrationality or a dense, meaningful prose? Hanley won't divulge and instead evades the real answer, "I don't want to ruin...the image the listener gives to the song."
Aside from figuring out the lyrical motivation, indulge in the addictive chorus of "I Got Time." Hanley jubilantly and rockingly declares, "You take the weight off the heavy notion/I'll take the wave from coast to ocean/that's why the ride is light/it's alright," with perfect background harmonies and studio dubs of Hanley singing complementary lyrics ("disappointment try it out/disappointment it's alright") peppered in at certain points. In addition to the exciting groove throughout the song, new drummer Tom Polce gets a chance to show listeners that he is a wonderfully energetic addition to the Letters To Cleo lineup.
GO!'s title track, with its punky-paced, unrestrained musical journey in Hanley's car, again highlights Polce and emphasizes the talented band members--Greg McKenna and Michael Eisenstein on guitar and Scott Riebling on bass--and guest organist Jed Parish. With an attractive female lead, the men sometimes get pushed to the background, but they are essential in completing the perfect pop rock sound of Letters To Cleo, especially on a song like "GO!". With Hanley's ecstatic voice, the band's instruments wailing with heed to precise dynamics and a circuslike organ bopping along to the automobile antics, the song exemplifies GO! and the youthful energy that infuses it.
If every song pumped forward like an amphetamine-induced joy ride, however, GO! would fall flat on its otherwise toe-tapping feet. Hanley & Co. have already perfected the art of incorporating myriad tempos and styles--all deviating from the same rock standard, of course--into their musical output, but this album boasts few departures from the peppy pace set by "I Got Time." This is not to say GO! will bore or sound repetitive because within the charming, speed-laced tunes are some of the best variations Letters To Cleo have ever recorded.
At mid-album, wedged between two rock heavyweights, is the country-tinged ditty "Co-Pilot" which reminisces over adolescent infatuation. The dreamy song begins a '60s high school love song kitsch and quickly leaps into sappy, swinging obsession with the first lyric. Despite immediately trying to deny "Co-Pilot," escape from the unforgettable melody and the blend of Hanley and supporting vocals, wrapping up the song is impossible.
The search for a little more musical sincerity in this sensitive area finds the soft, expressive "Aloutte & Me." A change in vantage point at the love lost and found ("why did you go ruin every thing...it's the strangest thing/it doesn't hurt but I won't forget the sting") sets a sorrowful tone to Hanley's emotional prude. Add a little more edge to the vocals, guitar and drums to "Alouette & Me" and "Because Of You" pops rights out. Hanley wants to let go but can't bear to detach: "I've a dark and snowy remembrance of this/but remind me again of what I'm going to miss."
Returning to the frenzied pop rock thread on the album, "Anchor" again explores the enigma Hanley deems lyricism. Opening with "the anchor is a kickstands/so you are going down with me/to the wrong side of the-quicksand," the band immerses the not-so-lucid message in flawless lollipop rock to create a confusing but lovable tune. "Anchor" is a musical advertisement for the lead singer--refreshing to match Hanley's slicker fashion sense and newly cropped bright red hair, and oblique enough to equal the message straining to come out from her internal vault.
Amazingly, Kay Hanley emerges as a intricate figure when fronting the band despite seeming so normal in conversation--she certainly is a unique girl. Letters To Celo is likewise far from flashy and genuinely earns accolades for being a great band and releasing awesome albums like GO!. Don't underestimate their power if the description appears stripped down--when the music kicks in, Letter To Cleo shuts out all else and brings the audience to them.
Letters To Cleo will appear at the Paradise on Thursday, October 16.
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