Making Music with Leftover Cuties
Something Like Pop Noir
By Jordan Venema
Here in the Central Valley, Leftover Cuties could be an allusion to a forgotten mandarin orange. However, the name doesn’t refer to the citrus company, but rather a Los Angeles band that will perform at Fresno’s Tower Theatre Lounge in early November.
The quartet released its first EP in 2009, yet its sound resonates from another decade, another generation, even. Like a sepia toned photograph, there’s a quality, almost a veneer about Leftover Cuties that suggests vintage, and yet unquestionably is only a filter.
Lead singer Shirli McAllen’s soft, crooning vocals are sometimes juxtaposed by an almost carnivalesque parading of energy and sound, which complemented by instrumental tinctures transport listeners through kaleidoscopic musical allusions. Muted trumpets and bootlegging brass echo from a jazz club in Harlem, and a waltz vibrates through an accordion played along the banks of the Seine.
It’s hard to put your finger on it, what their music, their mood conjures, but McAllen agrees that intangible something is there.
She calls it vintage pop, or pop noir, but when you hear it you’ll recognize it, though it’s something new in its own right.
“We have one foot in the past, one foot in the future,” she says, which means they’re walking a unique line, intentionally or not.
“The music definitely draws from classic music, a bunch of eras from the ‘20s to the ‘60s, but we don’t limit ourselves to one era in particular. We’d also like to think that we’re modern as well as vintage,” she explains, adding, “I didn’t even listen to this kind of music until after I started making this kind of music.”
Which almost happened by accident.
In 2008, McAllen was bartending in Los Angeles, a singer-songwriter who performed in other projects with Leftover Cuties bassist Austin Nicholsen.
“He came to my house one day with a ukulele,” continues McAllen. “I didn’t even know what a ukulele was. I thought it was a toy.”
She had written some lyrics earlier at the bar where she worked, then began singing as Nicholsen strummed. In five minutes, they wrote their first song, “A Game Called Life.” Two years later, the song became the theme for the Showtime series The Big C.
They had almost discarded the song because, McAllen says with a laugh, “we didn’t even think it was any good.” They had shelved it that night, but when she came back to it a couple years later, “it dawned on me that there was something really special about the song, and that I was singing differently.”
Growing up in Israel, McAllen had never really listened to jazz or the classics – just Israeli music and later some rock ‘n’ roll. So when she began singing differently over the ukulele, she couldn’t have then compared it to the melodies of Ella Fitzgerald.
“I feel I owe it to the ukulele,” explains McAllen. “It’s a different style of singing because it’s such a gentle instrument, and it gives so much space for the voice
Within two years of writing “A Game Called Life,” McAllen and Nicholsen formed Leftover Cuties with Mike Bolger (accordion, keys and brass) and drummer Stuart Johnson, and recorded and released their first album with producer Tony Berg.
Whatever the ukulele inspired in McAllen, it also created the matrix for Leftover Cuties, a sound that is both intimate and familiar.
“People seem to be very charmed by it. We have a young and an older crowd,” says McAllen. The music can be both an experience of nostalgia and discovery, though she admits, “We don’t set out to be a museum band.”
Obviously not, as the band is writing new music, “a bunch of songs that we’re aching to record.” They’ll likely perform some of them at the Nov. 4 show at Fresno’s Tower, where they’ve played once before.
“The venue in Fresno is very intimate, so automatically it creates an intimate environment. It’s a smaller venue, and people sit very up close to us, and it feels like the whole room is engaged,” says McAllen.
The intimacy of Tower paired with the familiarity of their music should set the stage for a memorable show. And McAllen expects that it will make people smile.
“I feel like that’s the best gift that we’ve gotten from playing this music,” she says. “Making people feel good, forget their troubles, be in the moment and smile.”
Nov. 4, 8 pm
The Tower Theatre Lounge • towertheatrefresno.com
805 E. Olive Ave., Fresno • (559) 484-9050 • $25 – $45