On "Satellite", the third track from Kay Hanley's first solo effort "Cherry Marmalade", the singer-songwriter-guitarist compares a departing lover to "blue salt water taffy". There's no better way to describe "Cherry Marmalade" than to compare it to blue salt water taffy.
Consider a piece of blue salt water taffy. It doesn't look like all that much... it's a blob of sugar in a pretty wrapper. It's stuffed in a box with all of the other pieces of salt water taffy (even the nasty peanut butter one... I'm not sure what that's a metaphor for). And as it melts in your mouth, it tastes pretty good, but it's not some kind of earth shattering new flavor, like that Egyptian guy who eats chocolate for the first time in the film "Stargate".
But here's the thing about blue salt water taffy: it's comforting, it's familiar, and it's good. The same is true of "Cherry Marmalade". It's not the kind of album that people will be talking about twenty years down the road, and it's not the kind of album that everyone will praise but no one will listen to.
It's comforting. It's familiar. It's good.
Despite an ear-splitting private CD release party at Bill's Bar on Lansdowne Street, Hanley's solo disc is surprisingly subdued, considering what was recorded in the latter days of Letters To Cleo and what appeared on the Josie & The Pussycats soundtrack. Cherry Marmalade could be called the anti-Wholesale Meats And Fish album. It's slow and soft, and even rockers like "Satellite" and "Mean Streak" don't reach the noise levels of the WM&F. The more upbeat numbers are reminiscent of 80's R.E.M., full of energy, the jingle-jangle of slightly countryfied strings in sync with a flawless Bill Berry rhythm... Driver 8, take a break! The slower songs have a unique feel to them, with simple but skillfully played arrangements - single acoustic guitars joined slowly by a drum, a piano chord, another guitar. On "Chady Saves The Day" one can almost imagine Kay lounge singing in a near-empty bar while jazz musicians play lazily behind her. Kay has selected a good crew of studio musicians (including Jennifer Trynin and husband Mike Eisenstein on guitars), and they're certainly enough variety to keep things interesting.
Those familiar with her writing style will be even more pleased with Kay's effort here. Hanley has the ultimate girly voice, but it somehow seems to match whatever lyrics she writes. She has the ability to be simple, comforting, and warm, with lines like "I wanna go to the show/can you buy us a ticket/then let's wrap me up/in a red velvet blanket" and at the same time utterly confusing "I couldn't orchestrate this love/I'm beyond Trans-Neptune Object #1". Gone too is the anger found in earlier recordings. With the exception of "Mean Streak", when bad things happen, Kay is withdrawn and melancholy rather than angry and vengeful. Maybe watching Blue's Clues with your two-year-old daughter does that to a person.
Despite Hanley's attempts to push away from the Cleo sound, she was just too integral a part of the band to break clean away, as evident on several songs. "Happy To Be Here" is somewhat reminiscent of "Step Back", but has an unmistakable and quirky square-dance tempo and guitar twang. "Mean Streak"'s overlapped organ sounds much like "Pizza Cutter", but it doesn't overpower the track like the old Cleo hit. Overall, the jangly-pop guitars with just enough fuzz, the vocal styling of Kay, and the song structures themselves are very Cleo-like, but Kay delves into new enough territory with each to keep the album sounding fresh.
Kay Hanley - Cherry Marmalade
Released August 13, 2002 on Rounder Records
This Dreadful Life
Chady Saves The Day
Made In The Shade
Happy To Be Here
Trans-Neptunian Object #1