Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Leftover Cuties: “The Spark & The Fire” (2013) CD Review

This continues to be a surprisingly good year for music with the release of Leftover Cuties’ second album, The Spark & The Fire, an impressive collection of songs combining jazz, pop and swing, with excellent lead vocals. This band is in the same general realm as the Squirrel Nut Zippers, in as much as they take some older styles and apply them to modern pop. And they do it so well. This band also writes great material. All of the songs on The Spark & The Fire are originals. In “Once Again,” lead vocalist Shirli McAllen sings, “Again I arrive overjoyed/And I leave completely destroyed.” I like the way she plays with the word “destroyed.” When she sings later in that same song, “Still I wonder what we could have been,” the horn soars, as if in answer.

The songs are really well-constructed, and have an original feel in spite of being influenced by older styles (including some elements of early 1960s rock, like the drumbeat to “What’s The Matter?”). This album put me in such a good mood. Seriously, if you’re feeling a bit low, put this on, and within a couple of minutes you’ll be dancing (or at least smiling) your woes away. Part of that is due to the New Orleans influence heard in several of the tracks. I’m looking forward to seeing this band in concert.

The album opens with “Thick And Thin,” which is a bright burst of fun, with a bit of an old-time swing that is delightful, and even a bit of an early rock and roll groove. And it’s a love song with a happy, positive vibe, a song above not giving up, with lines like, “I’m going to fight for you until we get it right.” This song also provides the album’s title in the lines, “Now it breaks my spirit, it makes me so sad/To think of the spark and the fire we once had.”

“One Heart” starts with a great groove on percussion, with Shirli’s vocals soon coming in over the cool rhythm. And when the song truly kicks in, her vocals become even more impressive. Seriously, this is a great vocal performance. Shirli has a lot of power, a lot of control. And the lyrics are pretty damn good. “The words you never said, they haunt me/The ones you did were as sharp as a knife.” And this song asks, “How many times can one heart break?

Shirli gives another excellent vocal performance in “Clarity,” a cool, late-night song that is simply gorgeous, and quite moving. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “Oh babe, I wish you knew how beautiful you are/I wish you’d see yourself only through my eyes/Then you’ll know in time this too shall pass.” There is a quiet moment with just vocals and ukulele, on a later repetition of the line “Oh babe, I wish you knew how beautiful you are.” This song itself is so beautiful, and is one of the album’s best tracks.

“If Only It Could Be” is a great jazzy gem that is tremendous fun, with a great 1940s vibe. It has a great groove on bass and drums, and a totally fucking delicious instrumental section. There is also a playful ending that makes me love the song even more. This is another of the CD’s best tracks, and one of the year’s coolest tunes.

“Blind Man” provides more great vibes and grooves from the past, but also with a very original feel, and another wonderful vocal performance. I love the way this song builds and progresses, and I’m particularly fond of the work on keys. “You’re a blind man/Though you can clearly see/You’re a sad man/Without any reason to be.”

“Shame” begins with a seriously cool groove on bass by Austin Nicholsen. There is something very sexy about this song, in the bass, and especially the vocals. The first lines are, “And to think I almost didn’t meet you/I almost didn’t know you exist.” I imagine her in a long, slinky red dress singing in a small club after hours, holding each patron spellbound. The song has that kind of feel. Yes, it’s another of my favorites.

“Everyone” is an old-time New Orleans-style drinking song. And is there anything better in this world? It’s totally delightful. Shirli sings, “Everyone is a little crazier this time of year,” and lunacy has never sounded so appealing. This track features backing vocals by Kate Nicholsen, Tamara Watford, Clayton Joseph Scott and Kelly Johnson, and has something of a party atmosphere, particularly at the end.

The Spark & The Fire ends with “I’ve Been Waiting,” a pretty and sweet tune. This is one that really highlights Shirli’s vocal performance. When it kicks in, it has an early 1960s feel.

CD Track List

  1. Thick And Thin
  2. One Heart
  3. Once Again
  4. Clarity
  5. If Only It Could Be
  6. All That Love
  7. What’s The Matter?
  8. Blind Man
  9. Rise And Shine
  10. Shame
  11. Everyone
  12. I’ve Been Waiting


Leftover Cuties are Austin Nicholsen on upright bass, ukulele and backing vocals; Mike Bolger on brass, keys, accordion and backing vocals; Shirli McAllen on vocals and ukulele; and Stuart Johnson on drums, percussion and backing vocals.

Joining them on this release are Alex Budman on woodwinds, Ben Peeler on steel guitar, Jake Sinclair on guitar, and Kate Nicholsen on harmony vocals. Tamara Watford, Clayton Joseph Scott and Kelly Johnson provide backing vocals on “Everyone.”

Leftover Cuties are based in Los Angeles (and for that, I am grateful, as it should give me plenty of opportunities to see them perform).

The Spark & The Fire was released on July 23, 2013.

(Note: I also posted this review on Pop Culture Beast.)

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