By Joy Rimerez
Leftover Cuties Bring Spark & Fire
The terms “throwback” or “vintage” are synonymous with enduring style and timelessness. But they can also imply superficiality, a concern with style over substance. Whether it’s bars, barbershops, fashion or food, we are in love with all things retro. To call the sound of Los Angeles-based band Leftover Cuties “throwback” would be redundant. They immediately call to mind the romance of the speakeasy and the jazz sounds of the 1920s and 30s. But what sets this quartet apart from so many of the current ukulele-wielding pop bands of today is their strong musicianship and original songwriting. Not to mention the confident and sultry vocals of Shirli McAllen.
“Something about the ukulele inspired me right away,” said McAllen, alluding to the first time she heard it played by her then solo project band mate and now bass player Austin Nicholsen. “The sound of the ukulele made me sing a different way,” she said. “It just works very well with my voice.” So well that the two were inspired to write a song—“Game Called Life”—that became the theme for the Showtime series “The Big C” and earned them fans the world over.
“I see it as fate,” McAllen said of the organic creation of that song—“written in five minutes”—with Nicholson, one that subsequently led to the idea for the band. That was 8 years ago. With the addition of Stuart Johnson on drums and Mike Bolger on keys and accordion, the Leftover Cuties were born. As a band they seem to have a unique way of working together, sharing in the songwriting, arrangements and production. “We all have a great joy in collaboration,” said Johnson.
Their signature sound combines disparate elements that go together remarkably well—like the upright bass and the ukulele—as well as the piano, the accordion and various horns, held together by Johnson’s skilled drumming and McAllen’s warm and soulful singing. Just the way the upright bass or the deep snare drum provide the contrasting depth to the sweet and giddy ukulele, McAllen’s voice combines the silky smoothness of jazz with the deep sound of a sultry old-school songstress.
Their distinctive sound has won them a loyal following in the cabarets of L.A. as well as larger venues in the U.S. and abroad. Other impressive licensing placements include an ad for Samsung that aired during the 2012 Olympics, and a worldwide Hyundai commercial featuring the band’s cover of the song “When You’re Smiling.”
Their sophomore album The Spark and the Fire was just released and is receiving great acclaim. The album achieves a variety of sound and emotion, ranging from the foot-stomping anthem “One Heart,” to the sweet and tender ballad “Clarity.” The album’s title is an apt metaphor for the band—slowly gaining momentum but on the verge of something big.