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VISITORS to NEBRASKA: Letters To Cleo & ABBA are happy/sad and that's ... ok

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
"Back to Nebraska" by Letters To Cleo and "The Visitors" by ABBA.
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Letters To Cleo – Back to Nebraska (Dot Rat Records) 2016 (5/5 Rusties)

ABBA – The Visitors (Atlantic Records) 1981 (5/5 Rusties)

What drew me to compare and contrast a 36-year old ABBA record – their final, as it turned out – and a new EP of sorts from Boston-based guitar-pop band Letters To Cleo?

I’m not really sure. I was going to review Letters To Cleo’s Back to Nebraska anyway, and this new notion – via sync – seemed to be pulling me toward ABBA and their somber, bittersweet record The Visitors.

I first tried this “compare/contrast” idea with a dual review of 1984’s Earth Crisis album by reggae group Steel Pulse and the new Cherry Glazerr album Apocalipstick. I had not intended to do so initially, but the album art from each record caught my eye, as did certain lyrical themes and musical ideas. Here’s a link to that dual review from last month.

And so while Letters To Cleo might make more sense syncing with, say, AC/DC or Cheap Trick (remember their cover of “I Want You To Want Me” from the 10 Things I Hate About You soundtrack – and don’t forget that sweet cover of The Cars’ “Dangerous Type” on The Craft …), something about The Visitors drew me in. Was it because a sync pal of mine has been on an ABBA kick of late and referencing The Visitors? I suspect that played a role. But maybe it was wanting to be reheard and re-examined after all these years?

Perhaps Back to Nebraska will be Letters To Cleo’s final recording, using their classic line-up of vocalist Kay Hanley, co-guitarists Michael Eisenstein and Greg McKenna, and drummer Stacy Jones. I hope not, because what I heard on these five songs – pressed into some sexy, red vinyl – was a mix of nostalgia pie and a helping of sweet joy cream. Remember that voice on the Josie & The Pussycats movie all those years ago? Kay Hanley. Not Rachael Leigh Cook, believe it or not. Hanley is the real deal and it is a pure pleasure to hear their new material. They really sound as if they shacked up in a beach house together and wrote songs and got into wacky adventures.

Sadly, I can’t say quite the same thing about ABBA’s Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, who were in the midst of personal crises with their relationships (Andersson with Lyngstad and Ulvaeus with Fältskog) – issues that come to life in the bittersweet tracks on The Visitors.

And the mixture goes down smooth, from opener “Can’t Say” to the final track, “Good Right Here.”

One track, “4 Leaf Clover” has the bubble-fizz-n-pop voice of 48-year old Hanley reaching great heights as she sings about feeling “17” again and saying the guy she has found is like here “4 leaf clover,” now that she’s got her “shit together.”

The members of ABBA were “losing their shit,” (or “cracking up,” like on the title track) essentially, as the pressures of public life and adoration – and all that goes with being an international pop sensation – took their toll.

Hanley “can’t have enough love” in her life, while Andersson and Ulvaeus pen “Slipping Through My Fingers,” having their angelic, significant others singing about “that odd melancholy feeling and a sense of guilt I can’t deny.” Happier times for in the heady "Dancing Queen" 1970’s, it would seem. When the world was the Swedish quartet’s oyster and the drugs, drinking and debauchery were, well, expected.

But "Waterloo" ABBA reminds us that "The history book on the shelf / Is always repeating itself"


“I’m a winter magnolia tree,” Hanley sings on “4 Leaf Clover,” (alongside McKenna and Eisenstein’s buzzy guitars) while “the dry leaves of autumn / rustling down an old alley” on the tearjerker of ABBA’s “I Let the Music Speak,” offer a different feeling for the listener to mull over and consider.

Not much of those bedeviling sentiments on Back to Nebraska, although there is an undeniable sense of, as I said before, nostalgia. A lot of emotion, even under Jones's whipcracking snare drum. 

“Hitch a Ride” comes close (not to be confused with Vanity Fare’s 1970 hit “Hitchin’ a Ride), with the group writing about a carefree escapade into the sunny past, or, as Hanley sings, “It’s got everything to do with 70’s memories.” Seems to be a lot of that going around these days.

The years are going by on LTC’s “Can’t Say,” ("how did we get here?" while the “twilight images go by all too soon” on “Like An Angel Passing Through My Room,” which closes out The Visitors.

Having followed Letters To Cleo since 1995, when their album Aurora Gory Alice came out, up to 1997’s solid Go! album, which featured a different drummer (marching to his own beat? Like the soldiers on ABBA’s “Soldiers”?). But no matter, the Cold War sentiments on “Soldiers” are part of that particular time period, as the songs of Steel Pulse’s Earth Crisis were in 1984. But in Letters To Cleo's 2017 Trumpian America, or 2017 Earth, rather, the war drums of "Soldiers" seem to be (scarily) relevant once again. Tuning it out and thinking of better times can be soothing.

The messages on the 80's releases and the 2016/17 releases are different, but the same on the human level. That's where the connections are most apparent. We mourn the past, while also romanticizing it. 

In fact, listening to these albums on my office turntable on a recent afternoon, my eyes were drawn upward, to a milk crate containing DVDs. The one DVD cover I could read was for the now-canceled series Jericho, which came out a decade ago and was about a town in Kansas called Jericho, having to survive following a “limited nuclear attack on 23 major cities” in the U.S. The song “Soldiers,” which I mentioned earlier, resonated here.

But so does the Letters To Cleo title track – “Back to Nebraska.” It may not be interpreted as a song about post-apocalyptic America, but that opening line – “When we met / beat up strangers cheating death …” well, I think of the radiation burn victims in Jericho, who walked from decimated Denver to the northwest Kansas town of the series.

“I held your body like a spoon / and died with you,” sings Hanley on this key track.

And on "When All Is Said and Done"? Lyngstad sings: "Thanks for all your generous love / and thanks for all the fun / neither you nor I am to blame / when all is said and done."

ABBA's dated-but-certainly-appealing, early 1980's production and sound holds up on The Visitors because there is so much sorrow. A chapter was ending for ABBA.

And for Letters To Cleo, well, Back to Nebraska is a "labor of love," as Hanley put it in a recent interview. The band's members have day jobs, but this fun little lark, a gift to their many fans, reminds us of what a terrific band were in their 1990's heyday, when the movie studios were calling, begging them to be their go-to soundtrack band. It was something they were good at then and in all likelihood would be terrific at once again - once that 1990's nostalgia starts sinking in.

The countdown begins ... now ... 

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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