My friend warned me not to mention Henry Cow.
It’s tempting, but possibly meaningless, to say that Cheer-Accident’s gonzo synth-horn prog rock couldn’t have happened anywhere but the Midwest. In one sense, sure—they come from Chicago and its suburbs, and they’ve worked with a whole host of Chicago musicians, including Steve Albini and more than one Flying Luttenbacher. But in the musical sense? Well, maybe some coastal band would’ve eventually hit upon Cheer-Accident’s blend of ‘70s AOR hooks, unfussy chops, stone-faced humor, math-rock time signatures, overdubbed horn lines, collective humility and patient willingness to chase musical ideas to their inevitable conclusions. But probably not. In fact, on their 17th album No Ifs, Ands or Dogs—no highfalutin’ Oxford comma for them!—Cheer-Accident’s music often seems like the inevitable nexus of half a century’s worth of Chicago music, Styx meets the AACM meets SKiN GRAFT noize. I suppose you could call them “post-rock” if they didn’t, in fact, rock.
Though their musical ideas come from all over the place, Cheer-Accident put those ideas together in ways that approach the ideal of ears raised on radio: one kick-ass sound after another, a never-ending string of rad shit. “Trial of Error” opens with a booming drum strut from founder Thymme Jones, then adds a blaring synth melody that wanders through two distinct keys before returning home. Imagine ELP with better beats and a yen for German neo-tonal composer Paul Hindemith. After repeating that melody many times amid escalating levels of synth buzz, the noise falls away, leaving the guys singing a different sinister melody over funky guitar scratching. Then the synth melody returns, only this time with an even MORE exuberant synth counter-melody howling over the top. Fibonaccian fans of the golden ratio, take note: this climax occurs a little less than ⅔ of the way through the song, roughly where you’d find the climax of a classical etude. After that euphoric moment, the band rounds things out with a charming coda of disintegrating piano chords. “Trial of Error” is one basic musical idea, examined for four and a half minutes, and all of its 274 seconds sound cool.
If you’re NOT a fan of neo-classical etudes, Cheer-Accident does plenty of other stuff, too. Sometimes they do straight-up guitar rock. “Drag You Down” kicks off the album with a chugging riff, the hairy man-child of Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” and Lenny Kravitz’s “Lady”. They also do Super Sounds of the ‘70s pop, like the sweet horn-and-fake-strings number “Cynical Girl”. (Unlike that smug bastard Marshall Crenshaw, Jones wants to cure his girl of her cynicism.) At various points you’ll also find nods to minimalism, maximalism and motorik. They’ve played around these sonic extremes for decades. Their 1997 album opened with a droning ode to a vacuum, but four songs later, “Failure” resembled whatever Ben Folds was churning out the same year.
Like any good prog band, they also do multi-song suites—or mini-suites, as befits this modest 48-minute album. No Ifs features three such, on the subjects of sleep, Pollyanna and a province. At album’s end, the driving five-note riff of “Empty Province” leads into “Provincial Din”, which starts with everyone belting some starchy provincial anthem, only to dissipate into noise and sirens. Fellow heartland weirdo David Lynch achieved a similar effect in his movie Mulholland Drive, when a happy jitterbug contest dissolved into chaos.
The only problem with No Ifs is that it doesn’t threaten chaos more often. This music isn’t stiff—Cheer-Accident plays too well for that—but it’s a little polite, a little too-obviously planned. The vocal melodies often resemble vocalese, that Midwest-born jazz practice of setting words to instrumental lines. This usually works out well, because Cheer-Accident writes interesting and unconventional melodies, but hearing them as vocal melodies requires some suspension of disbelief (that is, unless sometime-vocalist Carmen Armillas is singing—she can pretty much barrel through anything). And although the band rocks plenty, Cheer-Accident never cross the line into pure scary heaviness. There’s never the sense of danger you find in similarly complex bands like Zep, King’s X, or Cathedral—the sense that a crushing guitar is about to liberate your brain from its skull and your organs from their solidity.
So more liquefied organs! That is my wish for Cheer-Accident, or at least for all of us who dig their music and find it endlessly fascinating. And there are… well, some of us. I’m a relative newcomer, but heed the wise words of Matt DC over at the I Love Music message board:
“btw I wasn’t kidding about Cheer Accident, they are a band i think lots more ppl would love if there weren’t relegated to the weirdo midwest skronk rock skin graft records ghetto…they are TOTES prog and very unique and distinctive”.
Seriously, you should listen to ‘em.
// Notes from the Road
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