Cheer-Accident have always been such a darling when their members play the role of ugly duckling. The group, which has had more lineup iterations in one of its 39 years than most bands muster their entire tenures, makes pop music sound ominous and inebriated, and the bitter-pill of math-rock/prog-rock/whatever-you-want-to-call-it feel syrupy smooth as you’re tossing it down. Yes, Enduring the American Dream remains a classic, as potent a commentary on Western commercialism as anything Radiohead have ever done. But each of the band’s outings has offered its share of gems. And their new record – Chicago XX, the band’s tongue-in-cheek 20th LP, out now via Cuneiform – is no exception.
For me, Chicago XX starts, unfortunately, a little wobbly-kneed. “Intimacy”, with its synth and bass invocations over the signature Thymme Jones drum-line, is just too short at 2:10 to fully register as anything more than a tremor; it leaves early instead of overstaying its welcome. Fans of Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys surely will ooh and aah at the second song, the buttery pop of “Like Something to Resemble”. If the well-recorded track is offering a comment on pop sheen, it isn’t offering that criticism loudly enough. The whole thing is just too sweet to take – and maybe that’s the point. But, for me, it’s a little too on-the-nose.
Then, things get moving. “Diatoms” features a piano-ballad motif intermittently interrupted by what could be culled synth blurts; the sound of arhythmic electronics, three-quarters of the way through, jumping in aside Jones’ multi-tracked sing-song is the equivalent of a sonic fart.
There’s “I Don’t Believe”. At 7:38, it is the record’s longest track and, if I had my druthers, its most definitive moment. After a bit of a stagy or hammy opening, the band descend into the kind of mathy prog-rock on which these guys cut their teeth as a live act in Chicago in the 1980s and 1990s. Take note of Jeff Libersher’s pitch-perfect ascension of electric guitar notes over the lurching bridge! When you think these guys can’t get much better, they one-up the game, with sometimes-frontwoman Carmen Armillas cooing, repeatedly, “it’s over” before the band goes wandering off into dissonant post-rock terrain. Libersher double-tracked both palm-muting march-notes and offering fluttery leads. It can be an enthralling listen, with unexpected pivots in tone.
From there until the last of Chicago XX‘s eight songs, it’s all golden. Though nothing exemplifies the heat or proggy complexities of the Phil/Dylan/Jeff/Thymme era, parts of “Plea Bargain” could fit alongside the stripped-down, raw nerves of Dumb Ask-era Cheer-Accident. “Things” does best when it’s roaring – it’s a little tinny elsewhere. The closer, the menacing “Slowly For Awhile”, starts with chiming glockenspiel, fuzzy layers of flute and Thymme’s off-time percussive thudding, and is foreboding in all the right ways, the perfect dressing to close a record that seems like it’s running through the band’s discography in reverse.
It should be noted that most bands still churning in their fourth decade of existence don’t see the kind of creative surge Cheer-Accident has nursed since 2017; Chicago XX is the band’s third full-length LP in three years. Though Chicago XX isn’t as grand or as thesis-dictating as 2017’s Putting Off Death, it is an absolute must for longtime fans and a pretty decent point of entry for those curious about this Chicago-based institution.