Cheena’s music can sometimes feel like a vapid novelty: fun while it lasts but short on ideas that would give you a desire to revisit.
The depth in Cheena’s atmosphere is far from evident when you skim through their debut. In fact, they don’t seem to be doing very much on the surface. Their crumbling garage punk is tried and tested, their lazy performance style is intentionally rough and very little more, and even the title of this album, Spend the Night With..., seems to call back to a fairly clichéd default. However, the more one reads up on Cheena’s mission statement, the more the meticulously crafted ambience unearths itself. This record is, as the band puts it, “A soundtrack to nights where revelry and lust are never isolated from poor decisions and vanity,” and when such a grimy sense of sin gets thrown into the mix, “a night with Cheena” turns into something more multi-dimensional than watered-down PBRs and late night basement sets. Instead, we get an experience that glimmers at the thought of its nocturnality, illustrating the scenes where you stay up late enough for the sun to rise but don’t gawk at beauty as much as you sigh at the discomfort; after a night of sweat-soaked confessions, you just wish you got some sleep instead.
At the same time, it’s never quite clear how seriously you are supposed to take Cheena’s manifesto. Profiles have painted them as a band that is about nothing more than the music, giggling off thematic implications with shit-eating clichés (according to one Bandcamp article, the theme of this album is “do drugs and fall asleep!”) and constantly highlighting the raw and reckless aspects of their lyricism. It’s easy to assume that Cheena is just a couple of friends treading water considering that they are made up of musicians who already have pretty steady day jobs in the New York punk scene. They certainly aren’t trying too hard to be different, but no project with Margaret Chardiet, whose last record as Pharmakon was a brutal immersion into the acute pain of a surgical cyst removal, can really be cast aside as anti-conceptual filler.
That being said, the only depth you get from this album has to be squeezed out, and with such a casual record, it’s hard to fall in love with the small details. Nevertheless, it hardly takes an attentive ear to identify the vigor in these guitar riffs. Many of the best parts of this album stem from a simple six-string clang rising above the messy production. Cheena have a tendency to slip ahead the faster they go, but slow-burners like “Electric Snoopy Gang” allow the guitars to fall into a hypnotic daze, shaking you back into life only when singer Walker Behl drops a one-liner like “she shit on the grass, now the grass don’t grow.” “Jane” and “Stupor” are also animated by their texture, finding prosperity in the way the layers of guitar pile themselves atop maracas and tambourines. To their credit, Cheena usually find a way to stop their music from getting too bland, even if there is little to say about experimentation or songwriting.
In addition, there is a lot of inherent zest in slacker punk, and Cheena have a firmer grip on that than your run-of-the-mill NYC basement band. They know that listeners turn to a record like this for something full-throated, and you don’t even need to decipher Behl’s sneers to appreciate his presence. On “Liberated Animal” his vocal range is milked like a roller coaster, whirling into a distorted falsetto and a brutal growl just for the fuck of it. Songs like “Fever” see him benefiting deeply for the lo-fi, with the majority of his charm stemming from lack of focus, as reverb bounces around his exhausted musings and his voice turning into more of a freakish embellishment than a force in charge.
However, any album where the equilibrium is such a standard blur has to go a bit further than this to magnify its value. Artists who do it better than Cheena (think Parquet Courts or Protomartyr) thrive because of their substance and personality. With that in mind, Spend the Night With... feels somewhat empty, and even though that might be the point, Cheena’s music can sometimes feel like a vapid novelty: fun while it lasts but short on ideas that would give you a desire to revisit.