To call Leftover Cuties retro or throwback would be too easy, and frankly dismissive. Sure, the music fits beside Billie Holiday, but it’s also current in its sex appeal, its sophistication, its confidence. The Cuties’ music – plied with upright bass, accordion, the brushed drums, and yes, ukulele – is not slavishly old-timey, but honors its forebears in the right way. Melody. Sharp playing. Stylized, confident, character-laden singing.
When Leftover Cuties chanteuse Shirli McAllen steps to the microphone, she commands your attention because she’s got something to say. And a beguiling way of saying it. Sultry. Aching with longing, yet in control. She’s the Cuties’ charmer-in-charge, and her silky voice hooks you from the get-go. You keep looking to see bluebirds landing gently on her shoulder for a listen. You could hardly blame them.
When McAllen first moved to Los Angeles from her native Israel (where she served in the army), she was still finding her way musically. “I grew up listening to Israeli music, ‘90s grunge rock and singer songwriters,” she says. After a couple of years trying to make her mark in the city’s crowded singer-songwriter scene – a lot of good writers and singers, but not a lot of memorable personalities – she struck up a friendship with multi-instrumentalist Austin Nicholsen.
"One day, Austin walks in with a ukulele,” McAllen says, "I thought it was a toy. He started playing and I started singing the lyrics. We wrote 'Game Called Life' in about five minutes."
With a newly defined musical direction, the duo dubbed themselves Leftover Cuties (more enigmatic and distinctive than Old Clementines, and sweeter). Stuart Johnson (drums), Ryan Feves (bass), and Mike Bolger (keys, trumpet, horn and accordion) came on board to flesh out the sound, and the band was off and running. In 2010, that sweet tune written on a napkin in five minutes was tabbed as the theme song for the acclaimed Showtime series “The Big C” starring Laura Linney. The band’s fan base swelled, with fans emailing them from all over the world, and their live shows packing them in.
With a debut album that delivers on the promise of that early success, Leftover Cuties’ journey has just begun. They’ve got places to go…
(Above, Leftover Cuties live at Bootleg Theater)
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Download: Leftover Cuties