Band of the Day

2012.08.26

Leftover Cuties

Retro indie pop with origins in an impromptu ukulele jam session
Is this some kind of a joke? Will someone wake me up soon? And tell me this was just a game we played called life.
lyrics from Game Called Life

It’s all about a “Game Called Life,” quite literally. In 2008, bassist Austin Nicholsen stepped into singer Shirli McAllen’s Los Angeles home with a ukulele and a tune, to which McAllen innately sang along, leading to the creation of not only the Leftover Cuties, but also the indie pop band’s debut track off their first EP (2009) and, later, the theme song for Showtime’s series “The Big C” (2010). Shortly after their first release, the duo expanded to feature drummer Stuart Johnson, bassist Ryan Feves and keyboardist Mike Bolger. The band notably gathered attention for their cover of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” in 2009. They went on to record their next two albums, Places to Go (2011) and Departures (2012).

Without doing an in-depth investigation, it’s pretty safe to assume that it’s not exactly common for a band to trace its origins back to an impromptu ukulele jam session. Then again, Leftover Cuties aren’t your run-of-the-mill indie pop band. As legend (or, rather, the biography on their website) has it, Leftover Cuties came to fruition after multi-instrumentalist Austin Nicholsen randomly played the ukulele for his new friend Shirli McAllen, who had recently moved to Los Angeles after growing up in Israel. Once she realized it was a real instrument, and not just a toy, McAllen started singing lyrics and the song “Game Called Life” was written in about five minutes. The duo came up with the name Leftover Cuties, and recruited Stuart Johnson (drums), Ryan Feves (upright bass), and Mike Bolger (piano, trumpet, accordion) to round out their sound. Together they released the Game Called Life EP in 2009, with its title track chosen as the theme song for Showtime series “The Big C” just one year later. Places To Go is the band’s full-length debut album, released in 2011. As you might presume from looking at the album cover—which features a woman wearing a 1940s-style dress and red patent leather Mary Jane heels, and carrying a suitcase with a speaker on it—the music travels not only across different locational influences (Hawaii and Paris), but also across vintage time periods (early jazz, swing, and rockabilly). With its breezy ukulele opening and dust-on-a-vinyl-record production, “Sometimes” immediately transports you to the days before Hawaii became the 50th state in the United States, a remote paradise in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. “Everything I Got” makes use of Parisian-style accordion playing, which becomes the perfect platform for McAllen's sultry jazz chanteuse vocals. Having a bad day? “Sunnyside” is laden with optimistic lyrics (“no use feeling down/get rid of that frown/take a walk on the sunnyside”) and singing so sweet that you'd never guess that the person behind them used to serve in the Israeli army. Though you might be quick to assume that Leftover Cuties are just a throwback band, give their music your full attention and you'll be rewarded with some of the loveliest melodies in recent years.