Charly Bliss Flirts with the Brutal Truth

Kay Hanley (Letters to Cleo) on the band’s synthy, apocalyptic new album Young Enough.

I don’t know how to review an album. It’s too much responsibility. Why did I agree to this? Argh.

Everything’s gonna be fine. I can do it. Just click on random tracks between phone calls and podcasts while sitting in traffic. How hard can it be? JUST LISTEN TO THE SONGS ON THE GODDAMNED RECORD AND SHARE YOUR DUMB THOUGHTS, SHEEEESH.

Start with the single, “Capacity.” Cool, cool. Digging the nasty synth bass against the sexy, crackly vocals. “I’m at capacity, I’m spilling out of me.” Oof, good lyric. Messing with the melody on the second verse and pre-chorus, I respect that. Man, I really dig her voice. She reminds me quite a lot of one of my favorite singers, Stella Maxwell from Cruiserweight. I’ve heard the band a bunch over the years and I’d never noticed that before. Nice choice to sneak in those big reverb-y drums to tag the choruses, creating a new aural/emotional canvas with a nod to Brian Wilson. Replay x 100. I fucking LOVE this song.

OK, I’m in. Let’s do this.

“Blown To Bits” is the perfect opening salvo, starting simply with vocal and organ and building inexorably to an apocalyptic racket. “Under You” is the song you would conjure if Pete Shelley and Bow Wow Wow were your babysitters growing up. If “Chatroom” isn’t in a Target or Samsung commercial this summer, someone isn’t doing their job.

The production on Young Enough, handled expertly by veteran fader and knob-pro Joe Chiccarelli, is (to my ears) a loving mashup of old and new. I imagine there was much wringing of hands and many late night hours in the studio spent agonizing over guitar/amp/pedal combos, synth wiggling, swapping out snare drums, achieving just the right vibe for Eva Hendricks’ affecting vocals on any given song, framing every syllable of her raspy lows and soaring highs. Not every producer knows how to mic and EQ a female vocalist, but Chiccarelli nails it here. Production like this is a gift to a band.

My first drug of choice on this record is definitely Eva Hendricks. Her approach to lyrics and melody is right up my alley, a fact that will surprise exactly no one who’s heard the songwriting of either of us. She flirts with brutal truths about herself on “Capacity”:

“I was raised an east coast witch
like doing nothing’s sacrilegious
triple overtime ambitious.”

She revels in inscrutable, often heartbreaking metaphor, as she does on “Hurt Me,” a rumination on toxic co-dependence:

“Eyes like funeral
mouth like a bruise
veins like a hallway
voice like a wound.”

There are several surprising references to fertility (“The Truth,” “Camera”), a subject which is not typically mentioned openly in pop songs but one that Hendricks treats disarming informality. Also covered are more than a few allusions to saving people of questionable worthiness to some who deserve saving, as described in Young Enough:

“I can’t protect you now if I couldn’t save you then.
You were still just a kid.”

Hendricks fills up space by pairing yummy pop earworms with chewy, multisyllabic words and run-on phrases so that every melody lands in organized and linear scans — though not necessarily predictable ones — and burrows into your psyche.

And then there is the matter of Hendricks’ voice, which is just insane. Insistent, pissed-off, charming, weary, satisfying. In her low range, she is sultry and in control. At the top, she switches effortlessly between scratchy wail, and clear, blue-sky soprano.

The thing about great singers is that they are often at the mercy of their instrumental accompanists. What is obvious to me while hanging out with the tunes on Young Enough is that Charly Bliss is a joint operation — this band is listening to one another. Guitarist Spencer Fox has excellent taste in parts and sounds, intuitively stepping forward or back depending on what the song requires. Bass players are (in my not-humble opinion) a tricky species, and Dan Shure stands out as being in a league with my preferred style: super-melodic, like Graham Maby, with the driving, no-nonsense efficiency of Kim Deal. Drummer Sam Hendricks, Eva’s brother, is as solid as they come and serves as a deft conveyor of mood on these recordings. He and Shure are my favorite kind of rhythm section, showing confidence through restraint; always tasty, never stepping on anyone else’s shit.

So please, feel free to take heed of the review I wrote above, or perhaps you’ll find this one more effective:

I ran out of spins on my free preview. I bought the record.

Kay Hanley is best known as the lead singer of Boston-based alternative rock band Letters to Cleo, which released 3 albums between 1990-2000, spawning such hits as “Awake” and “Here and Now”.  After a 16-year hiatus, Letters To Cleo reunited in 2016 to release the EP “Back To Nebraska” and embark on several sold-out US tours. They are currently writing their 4th full length studio album.

In the late 90’s, Ms. Hanley began expanding her work as a singer and songwriter, providing the singing voice for Rachael Leigh Cook’s character Josie in Universal Pictures’ feature film “Josie and the Pussycats” and performing cover versions of Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to be Kind”and Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” in Touchstone Pictures’ hit film “10 Things I Hate About You.” For television, Hanley co-wrote and performed music for the Kids WB animated series “Generation O!” and “Care Bears: Adventures In Care-A-Lot.”

Hanley’s work as a solo artist includes the 2002 Zoe Records release, ”Cherry Marmalade,” followed by 2004’s “The Babydoll EP” and 2008’s “Weaponize”.

Today, Hanley can be found writing songs for animated television with her longtime songwriting partner, Michelle Lewis. Together they compose music for shows like Disney Junior’s hit series Vampirinaand Doc McStuffins (for which they won a Peabody Award), Dreamworks’ Harvey Street Kidsand WB/Cartoon Network’s DC Super Hero Girls.

Ms. Hanley and Ms. Lewis are co-executive directors ofSongwriters Of North America (SONA),a non-profit advocacy organization that fights for the protection of songs and songwriters in the digital music marketplace.

Hanley lives in Los Angeles with her 2 children, Zoe Mabel, 19 and Henry Aaron, 16.

(Photo Credit: Chris Sikich)