If this Boston quintet goes down as a ’90s one-hit wonder for the Top 10 “Here & Now,” it won’t be for lack of effort. Originally released by the independent CherryDisc, Aurora Gory Alice was a respectable local seller before Giant reissued it in 1994 (with a fancier booklet but no major changes); aided by exposure on MTV’s Buzz Bin and inclusion on the Melrose Place soundtrack album, “Here & Now” broke big a year after the album’s original release. The record’s airy sonics, Kay Hanley’s soaring vocals and the band’s smart pop-rock songwriting make for a solid, if not especially challenging, effort. “Get on With It” typifies Cleo’s approach — big swathes of guitar swirl set off by pretty singing — but “Rim Shak” features some aggressive riffing that could’ve come from a Soundgarden session, the sunny guitars of “I See” evoke timeless pop imagery and the unplugged “Step Back” offers pleasant pop minimalism.
While the production (again by Mike Denneen) is less intimate and organic on Wholesale Meats and Fish, the band’s second album is better, featuring grittier songs, stronger performances and more stylistic diversity than the debut. Sure, “Fast Way” sounds like the Pixies, but it’s a cool track, bolstered by Greg McKenna’s and Michael Eisenstein’s buzzing guitars and Hanley’s yearning vocals. “Awake,” a playful breakup winner, benefits from a percussive groove (check the handclaps and shakers!). Hanley’s kittenish coo on “Laudanum” is convincingly sexy, and the clever lyrics (“I want you to be like me / It would be so easy if you’d just agree”) help, too. “Little Rosa,” the album’s highlight, is ’60s-influenced jangle-pop genius. “Do What You Want, Yeah” is a discordant, throwaway genre exercise, and “He’s Got an Answer” packs some misdirected hooks that backfire, but “Acid Jed” successfully attacks neo-psychedelia.
With a new label, a new producer (Peter Collins) and a new drummer (Stacy Jones departed to join Veruca Salt and then pick up a guitar and form BMX Girl, the band that became American Hi-Fi), Letters to Cleo made their third and final album. On Go!, Hanley explores the titular theme of dispatching an ex, singing her disillusioned and bitter lyrics (“Find You Dead,” “I’m a Fool,” “Because of You,” “Disappear”) with conviction and power against loud rock-pop that reaches its apogee in the nearly Breeders-like surge of “Anchor.” If the balance of venom and sugar doesn’t quite match the woozy effect of another such combination, absinthe, the album is effective and likable.
Letters to Cleo broke up after a May 2000 fundraiser in Boston for an ailing friend. Hanley formed a new band with guitarist Eisenstein (also a touring member of Our Lady Peace) and launched a solo career. Although she sings that her “heart is still aching” on Cherry Marmalade, she seems better able to take romance’s ups and down in stride. Throughout the album, she counters self-doubt with desire; disappointment with action. In the opener, “Fall,” she goes from “I didn’t think that you cared anymore” to “I’m coming out in November / Will you be there?” before enigmatically announcing — over the course of several dozen syllables — “It looks like I might fall.” Elsewhere, she announces “I just want what’s mine,” “I just want to kiss you,” “Just let me in” and “I’m so happy to be here.” A few songs allude to problematic inter-generational dating, and there’s no happy ending; but it’s hard not to cheer Hanley on. However, the return of producer Mike Denneen, who comes up with such nice touches as the multiple vocals on the chorus of “This Dreadful Life,” basically takes Hanley back to Cleo’s pre-Go! mildness, and that’s a shame. Her gulpy voice is a bit too gimmicky to be front and center in such blandly restrained settings; a bit of blaring guitar seems to bring out Hanley’s inner mounting flame.