Friday, December 11, 2009

#21. Cheer-Accident - Fear Draws Misfortune (Cuneiform, 2009)

In the 25 years they've been active Cheer-Accident have tried on many different musical guises to varying degrees of success. I mean, in the 90s they went from Jesus Lizard gone math-rock (Dumb Ask) to fractured art-rock (Babies Shouldn't Smoke) to a full on progressive/RIO tribute (Not a Food) to the best approximation of what 10cc would sound like if they had formed a decade later in Chicago (their masterpiece, Enduring the American Dream) all the while adding their own stamp to the proceedings. That mainly came down to vocalist/band-leader Thymme Jones' unique (read: acquired taste) vocals and the production from his main foil in the band Phil Bonnet, who imbued their albums with the sort of deft touch you'd rarely hear in a band as small-time as they were. Unfortunately Bonnet succumbed to a brain aneurysm in 1999, but instead of that sinking the Cheer-Accident machine it seemed to completely revitalize them. Jones began doing a bit of a Mark E. Smith and altering the band's line up and sound even more with every album, leading to some their most intricate (Introducing Lemon's twinned 20+ minute bookends "The Autumn Wind Is a Pirate" and "Find") and accessible (What Sequel?) material ever. If that weren't enough they remained just as consistent as ever, never dipping below my ever changing 'pretty interesting' threshold for good albums even on the rare occasion where they seemed to get a bit over their head.

Really, I could have chosen any of their 00s releases for this list, and if you're even marginally interested in progressive rock that actually seems to be progressing you owe it to yourself to hear as much of their output as possible, but this year's Fear Draws Misfortune made my decision that much easier. Imagine an album that takes the band's most prog (avant or otherwise) tendencies and their most pop tendencies, grafts them together and winds up being both accessible and intricate to a fault. It's the odd instance where a band makes their most readily accessible album by amplifying some of the most challenging aspects of their sound, in this case fractured compositions, odd time signatures, non-standard instrumentation and a love of dissonance. A lot of that comes down to the line-up that Jones worked with on Fear Draws Misfortune, a streamlined variation of the What Sequel? line-up that dropped former U.S. Maple guitarist Todd Rittman and saxophonist Sheila Bertoletti and added new vocalist Carmen Armillas to the mix. Armillas' presence seems to be the element that lends the most accessibility to the album; though over half of it is instrumental her vocal contributions are a great foil for Jones. She's got just as distinct a voice as Jones, but hers is its opposite; strong where Jones is frail, lovely and well pitched where Jones isn't as concerned with the technicality of his vocals as the emotion behind them. Her addition to the group works so well that when Jones comes back for a couple of solo vocals late in the album I almost miss her, and I'm one of those weird people who love Jones' voice.

But the real strength here is how the instrumentalists interact. I mean, it's always the highlight of any Cheer-Accident album, but here it's at the fore more than ever. In the pure instrumental moments you're witnessing a very tight and very focused ensemble of players, with Jones providing his usual polyrhythmic drumming at the base, and the remaining members, all of whom are versatile multi-instrumentalists at this point, use his complex but focused patterns to lay down material that can range from driving (the guitar-focused "Blue Cheadle") to fanfare-ish (the sax and trumpet heavy "And Then You Realize You Haven't Left Yet") to dark and minimal ("Disenchantment"). It's a varied melange of stuff, but there's a lot of cohesion at its core, just listen to the should-be-jarring-but-isn't transition between "Mescalito" and "And then You Realize..." and the latter's quick shift into "Blue Cheadle"'s driving riff. Between that and the skill that the players bring to the table, as usual, it makes for one hell of great listen.

I'm saving a lot of my praise for the final trio of songs though. That's where Jones' vocals come back to the forefront after the almost choral approach to the vocals on the first six tracks and where the songs get long enough to really showcase just how great of an ensemble this incarnation of the Cheer-Accident line up can be. Essentially it feels a bit like the logical continuation of Enduring the American Dream 12 years after the fact - hell, "Your Weak Heart" might as well be called "Dismantling the Berlin Waltz Again" though it's not like that's a bad thing - with lots of quick-shifts within the songs, heavy emphasis on piano and keyboards and a lot of excellent interplay between the various members. It may not be as diverse as the rest of the album what with the lack of brass and Carmen, but it's the best example the album gives of what the band can do when they've got room to work. This is especially true of "Humanizing the Distance" where Jones' drumming drives the track for about 5 minutes before sputtering out in the most logical way and leaving the guitar duo of Jeff Libersher and Alex Perkloup to wind it up with some solemn, mournful lightness. It works excellently as a contrast to the more upfront and emotional work that Jones does on the tracks on either side of it, especially "Your Weak Heart" which might have his best vocal performance overall and certainly some of his most heartfelt lyrics. "Your Weak Heart" also manages to be just as varied as the rest of the album without using much more than piano and vocals, outside of Libersher and Andrea Fraught adding some mournful trumpet to the middle section it pretty much a Jones solo piece, and its transition into something resembling a particularly piano-heavy Aphex Twin track at about 4 minutes in is probably the best single section the album has to offer.

I feel like I should reiterate that the order you're seeing these in isn't necessarily reflective of the order they'd be in on my proper list, but in this case I have a feeling that Fear Draws Misfortune could be the kind of grower that might have a chance at attaining this position in a few years time. I know I haven't listened to any full album from this year more than it and none of them have excited me nearly as much as it has. I know that it's an improvement from the last few Cheer-Accident albums, and those were great albums that would make easy top 100 candidates on the "proper" list. I have a feeling it might be the best they've done since Enduring the American Dream, and I know that no progressive rock album this year is gonna top the variety and emotion contained herein. Call its placement hope for the future, I guess.

No comments: