Letters to Cleo "Here and Now"

What was it about '90s rock music that lent itself so easily to female-fronted rock groups? How many times did you turn on MTV to see a cute girl sporting a dress she probably stole from her grandma and a hair color not found in nature standing in front of a wall of Marshall stacks singing about how much guys suck? They certainly weren't invented in the '90s. Janis Joplin, Patti Smith and Debbie Harry had held their own as the only girl in serious rock bands decades earlier, and certainly the '80s had their share with Chrissy Hynde of The Pretenders leading the way.

To look at it from an academic point of view, perhaps it was inspired by third-wave of feminism, which started in the early '90s and suggested that women's sexuality was a positive thing that could be empowering, challenging earlier views of sexuality as exploitative. It also allowed women the ability to "take back" words such as "bitch" and "whore." But perhaps that's a discussion probably best left for the Meredith Brooks entry...

Whatever it was, it was certainly popular. Besides the ultra-feminist bands of the riot grrrl movement like Bikini Kill and L7 (the latter infamous for an incident at a concert in which the lead singer removed her tampon and tossed it into the crowd, shouting, "Eat my tampon, fuckers!" in response to mud being slung at the stage), popular bands like The Breeders, No Doubt, The Cardigans, Veruca Salt, Hole, Luscious Jackson, and Belly all featured women in prominent roles--usually serving as lead vocalist and songwriter. At this point I could probably use Freudian analysis to dissect why so many of those type of bands--that is to say, bands in which a small, cute female lead singer surrounds herself with an all-male backing band--were so popular with male audiences, but that sounds kinda boring, so instead, I'm just going to talk about Letters to Cleo and how cute Kay Hanley is.

Letters to Cleo was formed by Hanley and guitarist Greg McKenna in Boston in 1988. McKenna had begun another band and drafted Hanley, then a member of a new wave group. When that band dissolved, McKenna and Hanley decided to continue their partnership with a new power-pop based project. With the addition of Mike Eisenstein on guitar, Stacy Jones on drums and Scott Riebling on bass, the project became Letters to Cleo, named for a box of letters from Hanley's childhood pen pal named, er, "Cleo".

LtC spent a few years gaining a following and sharpening their skills in the Boston area before recording their first album, Aurora Gory Alice, released on the local Boston label Cherry Disc Records in 1993. The album was successful enough to gain the attention of major label Giant Records who signed the band and re-released the album in 1994. The band already had another album in the can--Wholesale Meats and Fish--but would have to wait another year to release thanks to the success of an Aurora track that had been included on the soundtrack for Aaron Spelling awesomely cliched and horribly acted prime time soap Melrose Place--"Here and Now."

Besides Hanley's cuteness, not much impressive about the video as evidenced by this video, complete with color commentary by these two dudes from Texas

Thanks to the exposure of the song on the soundtrack (and the show, where it was played during the closing credits) the song went up the charts and the band found themselves playing the single that they'd recorded some three years previous on hip late night shows for young people like Jon Stewart's short-lived talk show and Conan's still-in-its-infancy Late Night program.

Again with the pigtails, Kay? You're making it really hard for me to not go Freudian on you here.

Equal parts hard rocking grunge and power-pop--and buoyed by Hanley's powerhouse vocals-- "Here and Now" showcased the band's sound nicely, and the song turned into a hit on the Modern Rock chart (#10), and even crossed over to the Hot 100 (#56) and Top 40 (#40). Oh, and in case you're wondering, here the really fast lyrics during the chorus...
The comfort of a knowledge and I'll rise above the sky
above I'll never parallel the challenge of an acquisition
In the here and now...here and now
I'm pretty sure we'll all stick with mumbling our way through that part when it comes on the iPod, but thought it would be nice to see, right?

The follow-up, "Awake," came off Wholesale Meats and Fish--the sophomore effort that was finally released after the success of "Here and Now." "Awake," while still poppy, had a harder-edged sound than "Here and Now." With the guitars turned up and the sound a little messier, the band sounds almost Weezer-ish. In fact, one could call Wholesale Meats and Fish the band's Pinkerton, which would make Aurora Gory Alice their Blue Album--only, you know, not quite as good. It's also clear that the sweetness of Hanley's vocals has been toned down a bit--they're less overpowering here.
The sweetness of the vocals may be what ultimately kept Letters to Cleo from achieving real success. There's some really great power-pop here, but Hanley's vocals run the risk of being sickly sweet and free of the sort of attitude that would make Gwen Stefani and No Doubt so successful. As good as the melodies and music were, there wasn't a whole lot in this single to separate the band from the other girl-fronted rock bands of the day.

"Awake" went to #17 on the Modern Rock charts and #88 on the Hot 100.

Still riding high on the success of "Here and Now," in 1996 Letters to Cleo turned their attention towards recording cover songs for movie soundtracks, starting with a cover of The Cars' "Dangerous Type" for the soundtrack to the completely boring teen-witch movie The Craft.

While the song failed to chart, it probably went a long way towards getting them the role as themselves in 1999's underrated teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You. In the film--a retelling of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew--Letters to Cleo are mentioned as being the favorite band of Julia Stiles' character (the shrew). Later in the film, the band actually shows up playing a cover of Nick Lowe's "Cruel to Be Kind" alongside '90s ska no-hit wonders Save Ferris:

Caution: Clips include Heath Ledger which might make you sad, and Alex Mack, which might make you aroused

The film also features the band playing a cover of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" on the roof of the high school.

Fast forward to 1:48 to see the band on the roof...on second thought, dont'--this trailer is like a trip back in time. Watch the whole thing.

Letters to Cleo's music was also used in other forgotten teen girl-centric '90s films like Jawbreaker and The Babysitters Club. Kay Hanley also served as the singing voice of "Josie" in the horrific live-action Josie and the Pussycats movie. Sorry, no clip for that one--if you want to burn your retinas, do it on your own time.

A year later--after four albums, including 1997's Go! and 1998's Sister--the band called it quits after a final show in their home town in May of 2000.

Since then, each member has followed his or her own muse, with Kay Hanley releasing two solo albums (Cherry Marmalade in 2002 and Weaponize in 2008), drummer Stacy Jones forming American Hi-Fi and McKenna starting his own side project, Murder Capitol of the World.

But, like many one-hit wonders, the band has had to do some terrible things to make ends meet. I'm sure she's not proud of it, but on the 2007-2008 Hannah Montana tour, Kay Hanley sang back up for Miley Cyrus.

I know, I know. Take a moment. Pull it together. Now, let's move on.

Lucky for us (and for them, it would seem), in September 2008, the band announced their reunion, which kicked off with a series of shows that will continue May 20, 2009, starting with a free show in New Orleans and continuing into Texas. In 2008, the band also released an odds and sods collection, When Did We Do That? Find more info at their Myspace and official site.

Here's the band playing at a Boston club last December, with the band sounding as good as ever and, of course, Hanley looking as cute as ever. Even the evils of Miley Cyrus can't take down this sprightly woman.

Download: Letters to Cleo - Here and Now
Download: Letters to Cleo - Awake
Download: Letters to Cleo - I Want You to Want Me (Cheap Trick cover)