The Boston Phoenix
June 29 - July 6, 2000

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No more Letters

The Cleos close out a Boston era

Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano

Sometime in 1995, I visited a shady record store and wound up paying 20 bucks for a bootleg Letters to Cleo CD -- a good one, too: Babes in Paradise, from the Paradise gig in September 1994 where they covered Weezer's "Sweater Song" as an encore. That's when it hit me that this home-town band were on the verge of making it: nobody bootlegs bands who aren't popular. It also struck me that even though I'd first met these folks a couple years earlier, when they were still wide-eyed about the Boston scene, and had maintained a friendly relationship, even felt a bit big-brotherly toward them at times, I was also turning into a fan.

Then again, Letters to Cleo, who announced their break-up last week, seemed to be friends with everyone who came to the shows. Singer Kay Hanley's Dorchester crowd was big enough to fill clubs in the early days; later on the band remained the most approachable of local rockers. They were that kind of band, and they played that kind of music. Their spirit was caught nicely in, of all places, last year's teen comedy Ten Things I Hate About You: they're on stage at a party singing Nick Lowe's "Cruel To Be Kind," with Hanley looking especially alterna-rock glamorous. The star of the movie is fighting with her boyfriend, and Hanley comes to the rescue by jumping off stage and singing it directly at him. Sure, it's the kind of semi-cheesy moment that always happens in teen-romance films. But it's the kind of thing you can imagine her doing in real life.

Letters to Cleo embodied a period in local history that I'm already starting to miss -- call it the great Boston pop surge. Never mind that the rest of the country was still reeling over Nirvana's crash-and-burn and the imminent decline of indie rock. Somehow Boston in the mid '90s wound up with more than its share of warmth and optimism, guitars and hooks. The left-field success of Juliana Hatfield and the Lemonheads brought the A&R types to town looking for more, and it was there for the taking: Gigolo Aunts, Jen Trynin, Fuzzy, Tracy Bonham. Everybody got signed; everybody got dropped; everybody more or less survived (though Trynin's still laying low and the Aunts have broken up). There's still good pop out there, much of it connected to the Q Division studio. But the scene shifted after the commercial success that eluded all of the above wound up going to a suburban metal band who stole their name from an Alice in Chains song.

Letters to Cleo seemed among the most likely to make it -- and in some ways, they did. They created three albums for major labels; they became TV stars for a short while (when their "Here & Now" video was featured on Melrose Place); they sold out their last few rounds of local shows. But pop success is a tricky thing in this era of music-biz consolidation, and it's hard to tell who's famous and who isn't. So it was that the Cleos did Ten Things I Hate About You while they weren't signed to any label. And now that they've pronounced their touring/recording career a dead issue, they still have enough film and TV gigs to keep them going: Hanley is in Los Angeles doing vocals for a forthcoming Josie & the Pussycats movie, and the entire band are providing songs for a Warner Bros. cartoon series, Generation O -- about an eight-year-old rock star who'll be voiced by Hanley.

For their part, the group members never seemed convinced that they were all that big a deal. When I first interviewed them, in 1993, guitarist Michael Eisenstein explained, "When I think of Boston bands who are popular, I think of Morphine, or O Positive, or the Mighty Mighty Bosstones -- definitely not Letters to Cleo." And when I phoned Hanley in Los Angeles last week, her initial reaction was, "My God -- I can't believe that many people are interested." True, nobody's really that modest, and the Cleos would always admit under prodding that being rich and famous didn't sound too bad. But they developed a talent that befits a band who deal in uplifting pop songs: the ability to take things in stride.

In that sense, the quintessential moment in the Cleos' history may be their appearance at South by Southwest. I don't mean 1994, when they played in the wake of the "Here & Now" video and packed a big outdoor club. I'm talking about the previous year, when they'd just signed their first publishing deal and started work on their first album: they showed up in Austin ready to rock the house, only to find out that their show had been canceled. I saw them at the convention center that morning, and you won't often find a more frustrated band. But I also caught a couple of them hanging out in the local clubs that night. Having schlepped all the way to Texas, they were at least going to get a little fun out of it.

Kay Hanley So when they triumphed in Austin a year later, it was a moment they'd earned -- they sounded as if they'd stored up all their energy from the canceled show a year earlier. By then their jangly pop sound was getting spiced by their love for rowdies like Kiss and Cheap Trick. And Hanley, who'd never been shy on stage, was now evincing a rock star's cool swagger. "Kay's my hero," noted the woman standing near me -- this was local filmmaker Kaylyn Thornal, a long-time friend of Hanley's who'd later direct the women-in-local-rock documentary Payday. But on this night, she joined the local contingent in feeling like a fan.

There were other notable shows, like a two-night stand at the Paradise in 1998 where they played virtually every song in their repertoire. And there were other frustrations: guitarist Greg McKenna now admits that of their three major-label albums -- 1993's Aurora Gory Alice, 1995's Wholesale Meats & Fish, and 1997's Go (all on industry bigwig Irving Azoff's Giant label, later renamed Revolution) -- each of the last two sold about half what the previous one had. Nevertheless, I'd maintain that the intensely hooky Go is the best of the lot. The band were never big on kissing up to the industry (try asking them about their short-lived Budweiser sponsorship), and they always maintained that their association with Azoff didn't do anybody any good. They proved it by releasing the Sister album last year through Wicked Disc. Although it was largely just a reissue of their embryonic demo cassette, it's now on the verge of outselling Go.

It seems fitting that Letters to Cleo played their final show to help out a friend: they headlined the Mikey Dee tribute/benefit at Axis on May 4. And they didn't steal the occasion by letting on that it was a farewell. "I hope it wasn't lame that we didn't play a proper last show and do every song we ever wrote," Hanley says. "I know this is a cliché and I know that people in bands say it all the time, but when Greg [guitarist Greg McKenna] and I started the first incarnation of this band, in 1988, there was never any ambition to do anything but play. Opening for O Positive on Thursday at T.T.'s -- to us that was the pinnacle. The other cliché is that you stop doing it when it's not fun anymore. For me it's not fun anymore and it was only going to be a matter of time before people would be able to see that, and then we'd look stupid up there on stage."

The band took a hiatus last year when Hanley and Eisenstein had their first daughter, Zoe Mabel. During that time the members took up various projects that will likely continue. Bassist Scott Reibling produced a few local bands; now he's just signed on to do the Gravel Pit's next album. McKenna started doing demos for a solo project. And drummer Stacy Jones, who left to join Veruca Salt in 1996 but has bounced back into the Cleos line-up a few times since, now fronts his own band, American Hi-Fi. Jones also recruited Eisenstein and Reibling to play on his former Veruca Salt bandmate Nina Gordon's solo album, Tonight & the Rest of My Life (Warner Brothers). Indeed, after a few years of revolving drummers, Letters to Cleo played their last gig with the surprise addition of Orbit drummer Paul Buckley.

For Hanley, things never quite came together after the hiatus. "We had started writing a new album, which we were going to work on this summer. And we started playing again, doing a bunch of out-of-town college shows. And that was when I said, `This is completely unacceptable.' We played one Buffalo show where we hopped into the Winnebago with the baby, forced her to sit in there, then drove back and hit a snowstorm -- it was fucking terrible. Then there was a show at Penn State where I had to leave her with my mom, and I sobbed the whole time. And that made me rethink my priorities."

Not everybody in Letters to Cleo is as ready to call it quits. McKenna admits that he still loves the band and hopes Hanley will change her mind. Meanwhile, he's keeping their name alive by putting together a live album and a B-sides/rarities album. Add in the Generation O soundtrack and there could be three Cleos albums over the next year. "There's nothing in life that I like better than playing with these guys, so it's going to be hard for me to play with anybody else. For me it was a really painful process when we finally severed it. I know that Kay is going to be huge, just monstrously big when she puts out a solo album. I mean, my project could be huge too, but I kind of doubt it. For me, writing words is going to be the hard part, because I worked so long with Kay and she's so good. I think I'm still looking for her approval. I can hear her saying things like, `You rhymed fire with desire, don't do that!' "

As for Hanley, she is indeed laying plans for a solo album. "My idea is to put it out in an unostentatious way on a small label. I can decide later on whether I want to be a pop star or not." Of course, there's no shortage of folks who will happily point out that she's been one for years.

LTC on CD:
The Letters discography

* Sister (self-released cassette, 1992). Later reissued on Wicked Disc, this tape included embryonic versions of later hits and a couple traces of their ska origins.

* Crush (CherryDisc, 1993). Flagship local pop compilation that included "I See."

* Aurora Gory Alice (CherryDisc 1993, Giant 1994). The hit album with "I See," "Here & Now," and "Big Star."

* Wholesale Meats & Fish (Giant, 1995). Longer songs, heavier sound.

* Go (Revolution, 1997). The most upbeat and '60s-inspired album, with no song longer than four minutes.

* The Craft soundtrack (Sony, 1997). You won't hear it in the film, but they covered the Cars' "Dangerous Type" with ex-Car Greg Hawkes helping out.

* Ten Things I Hate About You (1999). There wasn't a soundtrack album, so rent the film and tape their covers of Nick Lowe's "Cruel To Be Kind" and Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me."

* Jawbreaker soundtrack (Warner Bros., 1999): New version of "I See" probably done for contractual reasons; it sounds just like the original.

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