Underappreciated Album: Cheer Accident

Cheer-Accident, Enduring The American Dream (1997)

There are few ensembles that can make noise sound both as mysterious and as strangely inviting as Cheer-Accident. Depending on concrete sound constructions and Minimalist drones as frequently as they do on warped lo-fi pop structures and post-rock crescendos, this Chicago-based group has built a body of work over the last ten years that makes even their most adventurous musical peers seem sophomoric.

Put simply, when Gastr del Sol was ruminating on pop’s lush majesty on Camoufleur, Cheer-Accident was hammering the post-modern back into post-rock.

While the band continues to record amazing work (go out and pick up 2002’s Variations On a Goddamn Old Man), they may have hit on some of their finest moments on Enduring The American Dream. Released by Pravda Records in 1997, the record begins, appropriately, with an organ-driven drone that generates a sense of heat and scope – believe it or not – through the rhythmic sounds of vacuum cleaners. The concept may sound peculiar (A duet between Tony Conrad and a Hoover?), but it’s a testament to the band’s ingenuity and acute sense of composition that the piece works, and works well.

From there, the band rolls into “The Law of Attraction,” a spare and drunken ode for de-tuned guitar, piano and voice whose lyrics reflect on the love shared between two car crash victims. It is here that the listener is first introduced to Thymme Jones. A collaborator (Jim O’Rourke, Illusion of Safety) and solo musician (the tender and sadly overlooked Career Move), Jones is frequently the glue to the group, the voice wandering through the band’s disorienting sonic landscapes, a kind of narrative thread to keep the listener grounded through the more daring compositions.

On “A Shallow Stream” and “The Reenactment” and countless others, Jones’ voice provides a kind of inexplicable familiarity and comfort as the rest of Cheer-Accident creates a nightmarish backdrop. Far from the whispered inflections of post-rock, Jones’ voice is both pronounced and clearly trained, and wouldn’t be out of place on the Broadway stage. His ability to remain expressive and lucid throughout the deranged proceedings is, in and of itself, somewhat surreal.

But Jones is far from alone here, and Enduring The American Dream is, if nothing else, a document of diverse contributions from several musicians, among them Jeb Bishop, Scott Rutledge, Dylan Posa and Phil Bonnet, all of whom have made names for themselves in Chicago circles.

Which leads to the question of how one actually describes Cheer-Accident’s “sound.” While clearly falling near the style of the Skin Graft family, Cheer-Accident seem to harbor a polished, calculated edge that some of those musicians can sometimes lack. Enduring The American Dream is a sprawling and emotive record, one that bounces between more academic-minded sound constructions and off-tempo rock pieces set to piano, voice, bass, guitar, drums, found sounds and strings. It can be both somber and vicious at the same time, and its tendency to shift gears – sometimes quite abruptly – between different genres and emotional poles forces the listener to stay on their toes, constantly awaiting another sharp bend in the road ahead.

While it may not be safe or suited for radio consumption, it presents countless moments – taken on their own merits or, better yet, as a complete package – that are better than anything you’ll ever hear on your local Top 40 station.

Consider a bridge in “Failure;” after a few seconds of a kind of forced silence mid-way through the song, a piano begins to push forward in isolation, only to be joined by a distorted drum beat, and syncopated solos on trumpet and trombone. After a brief lull, the song repeats a variation on the same solo on electric guitar, and continues to fold and refold into itself, building en masse through interjected measures on piano, bass, and drums. Or, consider the way the harmonies of several voices, uncaged from an earlier, off-kilter romp between piano, drums, and bass, gradually transform into an extended drone near the middle of “Desert Song.”

These brilliant moments can be found throughout: The simultaneous interjection of aggressive guitar scales from “1/30/94” and somber lyrics from “Dismantling The Berlin Waltz” into the lost-in-the-static swells of “A Hate Which Grows.” The twisting and turning bridges, all tangled within each other, of “Frozen.” The way carefully multi-tracked harmonies and piano punctuation are engulfed in an ocean of vicious electric guitars, bass, and drums in “The Reenactment.” Before the listener completely drowns in moments like this, Cheer-Accident again shifts gears, introducing more measured, though siren-like, scales on organ and trumpet.

This juxtaposition of dense, highly orchestrated sounds and momentary lulls or breaks can be found throughout. While your typical rock band might try to play this off as a safe formula by shifting between quiet verses and rousing, guitar-driven refrains, Cheer-Accident always seem to keep the interplay of these elements fresh. In a larger sense, the entire record toys with this idea to an extent, shifting between a patchwork of academic sound constructions and strange post-rock musings.

It’s so easy to get lost in the noise that it’s easy to overlook some of the forceful lyrical sentiment that the band serves up as a possible commentary on what they see as the American Dream. Though only half of the record’s songs have lyrics, those lyrics are very pointed about their message.

“Nothing is all that will endure as men race toward death waving their tongues,” sings Jones in “Dismantling The Berlin Waltz.” The spare lines in “A Hate Which Grows” reference raping the Statue of Liberty. In “Metaphysical” the band goes for the throat: “The old man is buried in the clouds, spread the rumor of a new heaven for sale,” sings Jones. “The public and private sectors collide as the corporations buy up the night. We lie under the sign and embrace as they sell us the old dream of a new god.”

The noise can be so enveloping and inviting that the meaning of the words – as important to the message of the record as they may be – get swallowed in tides of carefully constructed noise and sound. It’s the sound of a nightmare, but you just don’t want to wake up.

And maybe, just maybe, that is the message.

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