Detroit, Seattle, and Nashville all have signature sounds. But in Cleveland, it's always been more about attitude — a gritty industrial disposition that's informed the work of everyone from the James Gang to Pere Ubu to Mushroomhead. There's rarely anything pretty or pristine about it. The exceptions to the rule — like the power-popping Outsiders and Raspberries — are more apt to spawn cover-singing bar bands than creative disciples.
Nonetheless, a new ray of sunshine has begun to peek over Lake Erie's chilly coast. It's too soon to call it a scene and too fresh to label it retro, but somehow, during another miserable winter of salt trucks, chapped lips, and heartbreaking football, the sound of summer found its way back to Cleveland.
"In the beginning, I didn't know how well received we would be," says Tom Dechristofaro, singer and guitarist for one of the city's best and balmiest new pop bands, Afternoon Naps. "But people really seem to like it."
Ironically, when Dechristofaro and singer and keyboardist Leia Hohenfeld first formed Afternoon Naps a few years ago, they hadn't fully embraced their own affection for pop music. Dechristofaro was a veteran shoegazer, while Hohenfeld earned her local cred playing "rock and roll flute" with the psychedelic folk-rockers of the Volta Sound. When the two got together, however, they quickly found themselves channeling an entirely different sort of music: They combined the offbeat jangle-pop of obscure indie bands like Felt and Shop Assistants with the basic blueprints of classic '60s pop, bubblegum, and Motown.
It all came together on last year's Sunbeamed, the now six-piece group's debut album — which was recorded in the middle of a freezing Cleveland February. Cheery and nostalgic, the CD earned plenty of kudos from Beach Boys and Belle & Sebastian fans. But the road to success in the rock-lovin' city of Cleveland looked like a lonely one at first.
But when Dechristofaro met Charlie McArthur and Craig Ramsey — members of another up-and-coming Cleveland group, Bears — "We realized there was this other local band who were into the same music as us," recalls Dechristofaro. "I had never really met anyone who liked that stuff before."
As fate would have it, Bears was already honing its own brand of sun-drenched indie-pop in a city that wasn't supposed to be producing such sounds. "I think living in Cleveland and having such cold winters, people really appreciate a nice day," says Ramsey, Bears' singer, drummer, strummer, and organ player. "When the weather is nice here, you really feel great."
Ramsey and singer-guitarist McArthur recorded Bears' self-titled debut CD as a duo in 2006, but recruited a full band of local musicians to fill out their sound onstage. This happened right around the time Dechristofaro and Hohenfeld were expanding Afternoon Naps' lineup for their live shows.
"When we started out, our expectations were pretty low," says McArthur. "It was just hard to find good local bands doing anything that wasn't rock."
A closer look reveals that cross-pollination and camaraderie have played a considerable role in this unlikely local pop boom. Afternoon Naps, for example, includes members of the Dreadful Yawns and Expecting Rain, and they share their practice space with the Hot Rails and Mike St. Jude & the Valentines. "Unfortunately, the place has no heat, so we're always freezing," laughs Hohenfeld. "We probably look like crazy people, shivering while we're singing about the sunshine."
"I suppose it is a little ironic to be recording music like this in a city that's generally known as being this grumpy, cold place," adds Dechristofaro. "But it isn't really that way. If anything, Cleveland is a very humble town. And that goes for the musicians here too. Everyone is very supportive of one another."
As it turns out, history has proved that a modest, blue-collar town — be it Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, or even Portland, Oregon — is far more receptive to a sunny pop tune than you'd think. "I think the dismal weather and general industrial decay of the city is something that can actually inspire the opposite from an artistic standpoint," says Chris Sheehan, frontman for another fine local pop band, the Celebrity Pilots. "Cleveland doesn't completely depress you; it likes to string you along with some really pleasant days before crushing your spirit. That ebb and flow of the seasons probably gives the pop music an added sense of poignancy or vulnerability."
Judging by the recent national attention both Bears (featured in Spin and Filter) and Afternoon Naps (an Allmusic.com "crush band of 2007") have received, it looks like Cleveland pop has national appeal too. "A lot of music now is so pretentious and overdone," says Dechristofaro. "Sometimes you just want to hear something that's simple, straightforward, and sounds good."
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