Swaying and Smiling
By Simon Weedn
It’s not often that a band is able to imbue its music with its surroundings in such a way that the group’s songs take your imagination to the locations it was inspired by. However, throw on Leftover Cuties debut full-length, Places To Go and you can almost feel the sunshine and smell the sea air of their home in Venice Beach with the opening track “Lost in the Sea.” One could also be transported into the darker, smoky backrooms and bars of Downtown Los Angeles with sultry, bluesy ballads like “Movin’ On.” The quartet’s unique melting pot—as bass player Austin Nicholsen puts it—of vintage and contemporary styles allows the Cuties’ tunes to stand out far beyond the sea of generic music and mediocre song-writing that is rife in Los Angeles. This unique arrangement of influences and styles allow the group to carve out its own distinctive place in the Southern California music community.
For nearly five years now, Leftover Cuties has been developing its sound beginning with its early incarnation as a two-person collaboration between singer Shirli McAllen and ukulele/bass player Austin Nicholsen. In its present assemblage it includes drummer Stuart Johnson and Michael Bolger—who switches between piano, accordion, and horn. While McAllen and Nicholsen agree that during the Cuties history “at any point we thought it was complete,” the band still entertains and welcomes the idea of continued growth. “Who knows maybe in a couple years we’ll have the Leftover Cuties Big Band,” said Nicholsen. McAllen adding on to that “you never know, hopefully nothing is ever complete because there’s always more to explore.”
Not surprisingly, the Leftover Cuties’ first LP, Places To Go, shows off the band’s adventurous spirit with the group pulling from an array of influences something as beautiful as it is diverse. “We really wanted to make a statement with it,” exclaimed McAllen. “We wanted to make it slightly more lush, and a fuller sound than the EP.” “The songs were more thought out, the band was more evolved; we’d grown up some and you can hear it in the music” added Nicholsen. Under the guidance of producer Tony Berg (Bob Dylan, Michael Penn, Jesca Hoop), the Cuties move deftly through candy sweet up-tempo numbers–“Sunnyside” being a perfect example. The record flows organically with all of the tracks feeling they belong to one another, and none standing outside of the rest. Best of all, the band decided to take the leap and press its records on vinyl; the band says it’s been going over really well with their fans. “It was clear to us we had to make a vinyl just because they’re so awesome,” said McAllen. “It’s a whole different listening experience in this digital age we live in, when you put on a record; it’s a commitment,” added Nicholsen. (Also noteworthy is the emotionally deep interpretation of Bob Dylan classic “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” from Cuties EP Departures, produced by Jake Sinclair. It’s the Cuties’ unique take on time honored material that leads to a gorgeously sorrowful version of the county standard “You Are My Sunshine,” also from Departures. While most recordings of the tune feature jovial major key arrangements, the Cuties’ rendition is noticeably minor-keyed and slowed down. Shirli McAllen notes that this choice was inspired by the words of the song as opposed to its original style. “I printed out the lyrics and looked at them and thought these lyrics are so sad, let’s try this in minor. It felt like there was something there, it was crazy but it worked.”)
Looking to the future, Leftover Cuties has some big ambitions in the coming months. The band is in the midst of recording a follow up to Places To Go and have enlisted the help of engineer Dave Way (Fiona Apple, TLC, Michael Jackson) in the studio. After that, the band plans to work on a series of home recordings where their goals are to capture “more of a performance than a recording.” says Nicholsen in the intimacy of their living rooms. The band also has plans for both national and international touring with dates in Greece for October already set in place. One thing is for sure, Leftover Cuties has no intention of stopping its ride anytime soon. “I love the fact we make people smile, it’s a better feeling than making somebody cry,” says McAllen. “It used to be my goal in life to make people cry because that’s how I would know that I had really touched them. But when you make people smile it feels a million times better.”
With a true passion for their music and a love for the happy melding together of old and new styles, there is little doubt the Leftover Cuties will continue to produce music to smile about.
Leftover Cuties at Pappy and Harriets Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Rd., Pioneertown, (760)365-5956; www.pappyandharriets.com, www.leftovercuties.com. All ages.
(Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that songs “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “You Are My Sunshine” are from the Places To Go album, produced by Tony Berg. Both tracks are from the Departures EP, produced by Jake Sinclair. Song “Smile Big” is also not on Places To Go.