Since the end of the Elvis Brothers, Brad Elvis (Steakley) has led a couple of great Chicago-based bands with singer-guitarist-saxophonist-spouse Chloe F. Orwell. (He has also done a long hitch as the drummer in the Romantics, which just shows to go you how skinny-tie nostalgia has taken on the never-say-die attributes of classic rock.) The first two Big Hello albums are available together on the limited-edition Apples and Oranges, a slice of power pop perfection with hyped-up energy in place of heavy rock power. Brad’s drumming is hyper-kinetically solid in the vein of Clem Burke, but it’s Orwell’s strong, character-packed singing that sells the songs, which are smart, tuneful and funny when they need to be (“Riot Gurl,” “Don’t Step on My Cat,” “Boys Can Be Dumb,” “Star 69”). The bonus tracks include an original that borrows its title from Marshall Crenshaw’s “Cynical Girl” and a helium-fueled cover of the Fifth Dimension’s “Up Up and Away” as well as four brief outtake snippets that end the disc on deliriously charming note, as Chloe hollers while Brad goes nuts on “Slingerland Drums.”
Moving on to the Handcuffs, Brad and Chloe blow off a lot of the froth in a tougher but no less melodic approach, with guitars that hit harder and beats that mean more business. Orwell smoothly shifts from the Cyndi Lauper-type character she conveyed in the Big Hello to a bold and brassy pre-hip-hop Gwen Stefani. For the most part, upping the ante all around makes the progression work as a respectable bid for chart potential. The noirish “Car Crash,” which begins Model for a Revolution, is a clear standout, as are “Beg Me Beg Me,” the quiet-verse/big-chorused “Love Me All the Way” and “Peggy Moffitt,” an ode to the ’60s Rudy Gernreich mannequin (“a model for a revolution”) who graces the CD cover. The Cheap Trick-y guitars (by Frank Canino and Preston Pisellini) are distracting in spots, and too many bands have made songs out of the “Sex and Violins” pun to need another one, but otherwise Model for a Revolution is a run(a)way winner.
Orwell sounds more like Debbie Harry on Electroluv, walking the same line between coquettish and defiant in a broad spectrum of styles. The new lineup includes guitarist/pianist Ellis Clark and bassist Emily Togni (although Canino and others contributed, and the resourceful Orwell adds synth, flute, sax, organ, vibraphone and guitar); the sound is less pure pop and more, dare it be said, adult. Brad’s songs tend to cling to tag lines (“Half a Mind,” “God Is Sure One Funny Girl,” “I Just Wanna Be Free, Man,” the outstanding “Gotta’ Problem With Me?”) in the choruses, but most of the ideas being ridden so hard are clever enough for it not to matter. The peppy “Somebody Somewhere,” with distorted spoken vocals, is ferocious fun, while Orwell’s “Turn It Up” is another highlight.
Waiting for the Robot (which relies on Clark for guitar but is otherwise ad hoc in terms of instrumental contributors) notches up the band’s achievement in sound (burly and loud), songs (fun and smart) and singing. Orwell’s trick of double-tracking her voice in full-throated harmony somehow underscores the Harry comparisons, and the rarity of a band whose drummer is its primary songwriter and co-producer makes for a pop-minded album that is strongly rhythmic. That Elvis is a top-notch player doesn’t hurt, either. At its best (on “Miss You on Tuesday,” “Vinyl Isabella” and elsewhere), the album is a burly rocker, with a solid and fat rhythm section balancing Orwell’s energetic vocals. “Baby I Love You” (taking advantage of the fact that song titles can’t be copyrighted) is a rare Brad/Chloe duet that conveys the couple’s romantic sentiments in offbeat lines like “Put a gun in my hand, put a gun to my head / You’ve got to believe everything I’ve said is true.”
Reconstituted as a five-piece, retaining only bassist Emily Togni from past projects, the Handcuffs fold in a dollop of ’70s glam-rock flavor to their lockdown-delayed album, Burn the Rails. Orwell adds a taste of Andy Mackay sax to “The Ballad of Fritz and Zoom” and Wizzard-like twinned honks to “I’m Happy Just to Dream With You.” The surly “Big Fat Mouth Shut” deftly incorporates piano, sax, a guitar solo and other elements familiar from records by Mott the Hoople, whose Morgan Fisher is a guest on two other tracks. Amid winning melodies and wisely spacious production (by ex-Pulsars Mike Hagler with Orwell and Elvis), the album is powered by his snap-and-boom drums and her character-filled vocals. Alison Hinderliter’s diverse keyboard contributions play a major role in the arrangements, adding to the album’s breadth and charm. I don’t know what to make of the enigmatic lyrics in “Let’s Name Our Children,” “She Ain’t No Fluffer” and “Tobogganing,” and I could do without the largely spoken “Pretty Pretty” and its old-school lead guitar licks, but otherwise the ’cuffs do themselves proud here.