“Here and Now” in 1994 was Letters to Cleo’s only MTV and radio hit, with lead yelper Kay Hanley’s rapid-fire trademark chorus “Thecomfortofaknowledgeofariseabovethesky/ couldneverparallelthechallengeofanacquisitioninthe . . . here and now” creating a lasting vocal memory to this very day.
Unfortunately, the MTV video image of pigtailed Hanley zooming up and back on some wack tractor rig must’ve annoyed as many people as it amused. LTC’s second album, Wholesale Meats and Fish, tanked their commercial career, and a horrible record deal consigned their third album, Go!, to oblivion and the band to can’t-get-off-the-label sub-Antarctica, where they eventually packed it in around late 2000. It’s an easy guess that no one in underappreciated, underpromoted LTC ever made a cent over rent money in the band’s 10 years.
Jump to 2001: Every time Rachael Leigh Cook opens her singing pipes in the wonderful, wacky Josie and the Pussycats movie, my favorite singer-no-one-ever-heard-of Kay Hanley’s propulsive, driving vocals shoot the whole damn soundtrack so far into newwavehardrock outer-space heaven that no one’s ever going to find it. I swear I can almost hear Kay yelling, “I’m gettin’ paid! I’m gettin’ paid! I’m gettin’ paid!” in all the margins. (And yeah, she even covers “Money” with the spoken intro, “This ‘un’s for all you SHOPPERS!”) And you think, man, there are happy endings and poetic justices in this world. I printed off all 40 Josie customer reviews from Amazon.com, and 19 of them mention Hanley or Letters to Cleo, pretty amazing considering the act sold only 400-500K albums in their entire career. (Tho that’s probably four or five times as many as, say, the Muffs).
Oh yeah. Josie and the Pussycats is the best album you’re gonna hear all year. Buy it or be forever left waiting ticketless at the clue-bus station. See the movie twice or be turned into a frog, or an extra from Eddie and the Cruisers. (Your call—I only run the world cuz I’m the king, and those are the rules cuz I said so. Though no one is the Boss of Me to a cat.)
The kickass guitar and bass on the 11 Josie cuts (eight originals, the theme, two blast-furnace covers) are supposedly handled by geek-boy Matthew Sweet, how about that? The guitar has that heavy, slightly metallic tinge like 1977 Teenage Head or somebody; really works for me. The drummer is just atomic—total balls to the wall. And Kay’s vocals, recorded properly for the first time (= big budget and big-time producer/engineer) are the megaton bomb. On two or three cuts, she ends with a “yeoooooooWW!” just like those early Muffs things. Funny—she had a baby right before the soundtrack gig. Maybe puttin’ on some weight gave her extra vocal heft. (That’s what latter-day Debbie Harry swears by, anyway. Fat = phat, or something.)
Eleven cuts; seven better than excellent, including two great hard rock-pop songs written by Beastie Boy (Counting Crow, whatever) Adam Duritz and a terrific pop song written by the Fountains of Wayne guy who wrote “That Thing You Do!,” Adam Schlesinger—who in fact also produces the last six Josie tracks, following Babyface’s opening five. Plus, amazingly, the best cover of Johnny O’Keefe’s ’50s tune “Real Wild Child” ever cut. The songs average well under three minutes each, very Green Day/Blink 182 in their no-frills no-solos tautness.
Kay Hanley actually re-creates that “brand new” sense of blow-up pop of the great early new wave records. Even Green Day and Blink 182 at their most popular never got there, partly because their singers aren’t in the same league. I recall Hanley’s press explanation of the soundtrack’s evolution being “The music started out very punk rock, then as it was rewritten and rewritten it got totally new wave, Go-Go’s.” Off the rails—if you wanna use velocity, bpm, and launch distance as the yardstick—Joan Jett at her best (“Bad Reputation”) might’ve been one-tenth this catchy and hard-rocking in her wildest dreams (she didn’t have the songs). Any other late-’70s/early-’80s femme-vocal new wave act? Not even close enough to the same universe. (Somewhere, the Runaways will watch the movie on a time-travel monitor and go, “Aw, fuck! I knew it was a mistake to let that cretin Kim Fowley write the songs!”)
I remember when LTCleo showed up unexpectedly in 1999’s Ten Things I Hate About You, in a club scene. I went, “Wow! Jeez—that’s Kay Hanley! But who are those dorks?” (It was Letters to Cleo in really bad late-’90s alterna-clothing.) But they were doing Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind,” I think. And Kay used to put on a Cheap Trick T-shirt in the early ’90s for important Boston gigs, ’cause it “put her in the mood.” I totally gotta respect that kind of gestalt insight. Y’know, any trendy twit can like the Buzzcocks or Descendents. To zone in on something that was popular—now, there’s a Def Leppard move.
The thing that tipped me off at ground zero on how good the Josie soundtrack might be was back when I was digging for info on the Generation O! (Saturday-morning WB-channel cartoon that had nine to 11 LTCleo songs specially written and recorded for it last fall) promo kit CD—the last batch of stuff the group did before giving up and disbanding (Hanley needed the time to be a proper mom, i.e., no touring). The cartoon’s lead character is an eight-year-old girl who’s a big rock star, and her song titles = the names of the episodes, conveniently enough. (The promo CD has just three songs, though. Time to troll Google.com for a CD-R of all the tunes . . .)
Then, during spring break this year, MTV was running (and rerunning and rerunning) this 30-minute show, a little like Say What? Karaoke, with the Josie and the Pussycats actresses as judges, rating four wannabe-J&TP girl trios (for some sort of spring break prize, plane tickets or hotel rooms or plain old drinking $$$): First round on clothes (to send one trio home) (all the clothes sucked if you asked me), then on an “interview” (to send another packing and leave two). The two “finalist” groups would then compete at a one-minute lip sync, with real instruments, of one of the songs from the movie. And wow, it was an awesome, seriously great song.
“3 Small Words” is the title. “Punk rock prom queen, brown paper magazine, hotter than you’ve ever seen, everywhere and in between/I’m a 10-ticket thrill ride, don’t you wanna come inside. . . . Three small words and five long days, for all your lies to come undone/Those three small words are gonna make you pay, ’cause you can’t see that I’m the one.” The lyrics I can’t understand are where Kay Hanley rips off fast lines kinda like in “Here and Now.” No other girl in the world has her way of biting off words a little ahead of the beat. She almost sounds giddy. It’s better than any LTC song ever; just kicks megabutt.
The movie itself is a funny and rocking caffeine launchpad—a bit like that nutty Get Smart episode where a hit alien rock band were pawns of an evil plot to take over the free world. Except in Josie it’s just America that’s being mind-controlled. Sublimely moronic: Record company attempts to brainwash the youth via subliminal messages on the unsuspecting hick-town Pussycats’ debut album!
The real Josie album was #16 for sales the week the movie came out—not amazing, but pretty good considering the movie did only a mediocre $5M gross its first week. But the flick will certainly have a huge run on VH1 in the infinite future, judging by That Thing You Do!, which doesn’t have one-sixth the soundtrack, not to mention Tara Reid (she’s da drummer)’s lower-than-low-cut hip-huggers. (She’s got such skinny hips it’s ridiculous—a workhorse for jeans modeling. Keepin’ it in the family, as the homeguys say. “I’m Carson Daly, and I’m gettin’ married to the drummer of Josie and the Pussycats, slipping down today to #9 . . . “) Those J&TP clothes are pretty wicked cool, too. ’70’s retro is usually lame, but this stuff is timeless. Tho I dunno about the stupid cat tails.
At Target I noticed a Josie clothes display (for this month at least) right next to the Powerpuff Girls and 2 Girls sections: Columbus, I think we got a shipload of 12-year-old girls networking to form new-century rock bands. And since slacker grunge boys and worse put guitar rock into the DOA zone, maybe this is a flicker of opportunity to revive it the right way.
Hey—I wonder what Britney Spears will think of the movie? Maybe it will inspire (or speed up) her eventual move to go “rock.” (Remember: She originally thought Jive was gonna want her to do “Sheryl Crow-type stuff,” ow ow ow.) The Josie Web site links to the company that makes the band’s nifty white guitar—a “snow leopard” model. Maybe Britney will be playing one next year, ha ha. I can just see her absentmindedly prop-strumming, like Mick Jagger in 1978.
And maybe now they’ll finally make an Archies movie someday, so Betty and Veronica can get their props! I nominate Kay Hanley as lead singer for that one, too.