If the words "Letters to Cleo" sound familiar, chances are you either lived in Boston earlier this decade or watch Melrose Place on a regular basis.
Former Bostonians may have witnessed the alterna-pop quintet claw its way to prominence in the notoriously competitive Bean Town club circuit, keeping company with Morphine, Throwing Muses, Gigolo Ants and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
Melrose Place aficionados should do two things: read more, and check out Cleo's new album Wholesale Meats and Fish, due out August 1 on Giant. If you know Cleo only from Melrose Place, then you know the group only by its minor-hit single "Here and Now," off the Giant-produced soundtrack to Fox TV's weekly couch fest.
The irony is that while "Here and Now" promoted Letters to Cleo from regional sensation to national stature, it's a poor example of the group's work. Taken from LTC's debut album Aurora Gory Alice, "Here and Now" represents Cleo before the band hit its stride and found a sound truly its own.
Recorded at a breakneck pace and paid for on an installment plan, Aurora is utterly forgettable indie-rock fare. It was only after Cleo caught the ears of a gaggle of Giant scouts who checked out the band's showcase spot at the 1993 South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas, that the album received anything close to wide distribution, and then only because the label reps were so impressed with the band's live sound. Even Cleo's singer thinks the group's first disc is inferior.
"I've probably listened to it five times in my entire life, and every time I'm like, 'Yeeech!'" says front woman Kay Hanley. "Still, for a cheap indie record, it did what it was supposed to do."
The story goes like this: When Hanley heard the Fox network had contracted Giant to put out a Melrose soundtrack, she successfully lobbied the label to get her band's music a bit part on the show and a slot on the corresponding album.
"Getting ourselves on [the Melrose soundtrack] was totally innocent in origin," she says. "We thought we'd just be able to show our friends we were on a CD with Dinosaur Jr." Those friends were soon laughing and pointing, however, when "Here and Now" caught fire with the Melrose crowd and the song's video was featured on a (gasp!) actual episode.
"We took a lot of shit from our friends over the Melrose thing," says a pseudo-chagrined Hanley, who responds "Oh, God, yes" when asked if she watches the the program. "I'm sure we lost a lot of potential fans over it. But I'm also sure we gained more listeners than we lost. We had no idea the single would take off, but then you never know where luck will find you."
After the Melrose spot, MTV put the video for "Here and Now" in its Buzz Clips rotation schedule and Letters to Cleo got a taste of fame. They found it to their liking.
"We definitely saw a big boost in the 15-year-old skater-girl element among our audience," says Hanley. "Which I think is awesome--the bigger the crowds the better, to say the obvious."
The punch line to "the Melrose thing," however, is that most of Cleo's newfound fans have no idea how good the band really is. A quick read on Letters to Cleo is "Power pop, pure and simple." Beating behind that standard skeleton of big hooks and prettified melodies, however, is a wild heart of edgy six-string work by duel guitarists Greg McKenna and Michael Eisenstein. Eisenstein dropped out of the jazz program at Boston's prestigious Berklee School of Music to become a full-time rocker (Cleo drummer Stacy Jones and bass player Scott Riebling are also ex-Berkleeites).
It's McKenna and Eisenstein's potent, often hypnotic riffing that supplies the methamphetamine to cut their band's saccharine. The resulting confection can get quite tasty. Letters to Cleo is Magnapop's tougher, trippier East Coast cousin and, as several cuts off its new disc demonstrate, the band has developed the means to transcend the generic, throwaway quality that afflicts most contemporary verse/chorus/repeat outfits.
Unfortunately, "Awake," the first single from Wholesale is an exception, sounding like a page torn from "How to Sound Like a Band Trying to Sound Like 1,000 Bands You've Heard Before." With so many fresh, quality tracks to choose from, it's too bad Giant picked this groaner to lead the charge for Cleo's potential breakthrough album.
Still, nine of the 12 tunes on Meat and Fish are gourmet fare. "Do What You Want (Yeah)" is a raw, thrash-about homage to Sonic Youth--the song's title is its only lyric, and a repeatedly screamed one at that. "Acid Jed," called by a tongue-in-cheek McKenna "our psychedelic drug song," is indeed a pulsating, happy mind bender. The best Cleo song to date, however, is "He's Got an Answer," which rides on a tense, harrowing lead guitar line that slithers in and around the chorus.
On mike duty, Hanley keeps things interesting with a mad range of styles and dynamics, deftly leaping from raspy howl to sultry moan to sassy chant. On a couple of Wholesale efforts, however, she sounds decidedly locked out--as in, "Can't find the key." But, hell, Hanley's reputation is as a sexy, charismatic stage presence, and, after all, we're talking about rock here. Why quibble over a few pitch problems in the face of a fiery live show?
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Of course, where Hanley's concerned, the fiery show is often offstage as well. Example: While in the audience at a 1994 Orangotang concert at the infamous Boston venue the Rat, the five-foot-two-inch singer decked an overzealous pit dancer who belly-flopped on her in a kamikaze stage dive. A few nights later, at a Letters gig in the Avalon, the dynamo told her tale of revenge and encouraged moshers to stand their ground similarly.
"If anyone slams into you on purpose," she said, "punch them in the face for me."
The previous fall, "Fists of Fury" Hanley was arrested and charged with assaulting a peace officer after a verbal altercation with one of Boston's finest turned into a tussle. Hanley claimed self-defense and, after two court appearances, the charges were dropped.
"That," she says, "is about as close as I'll ever get to punk rock.