Cheekface Channels Anxiety into Infectious Absurdism on Emphatically No.
This L.A. trio’s songs are sardonic and frequently quite funny, and their vocals have the energy of a guy reading tweets aloud over music.Music Reviews Cheekface
Listening to Cheekface is a little like listening to a friend recite funny tweets to you while your roommate practices post-punk basslines in the other room. That’s not a complaint: This L.A. trio’s songs are sardonic and frequently quite funny, and lead singer Greg Katz, an everydude-voiced lead singer who talks more than he sings, really does have the energy of a guy reading tweets aloud. “Boyfriend with a soul patch / I know, I know, it’s serious,” he half-croons in “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Calabasas.” “I am eating like it’s Thanksgiving, but without the gratitude,” he deadpans in “Emotional Rent Control.”
A generation ago, songwriters wrote lyrics that seemed primed for use in AIM away messages; Cheekface’s quips are concise enough to be tweets, with the requisite non-sequiturs and self-deprecating observations. Still, after writing that description, I recoiled in horror: Has my brain really been so warped by social media that lyrics remind me of tweets instead of vice versa? But that’s the kind of existential anxiety Cheekface could probably write a song about.
And writing songs about anxiety is what this band does quite well. Their first album was titled Therapy Island and prominently namechecked Zoloft; the record charmed on the strength of a buzzy single called “Dry Heat/Nice Town” that lightly tweaked leftist protest discourse. The follow-up, Emphatically No., is even more anxious, more hooky and somehow more Cheekface. Opener “Listen To Your Heart. No.” spotlights the band’s playful misanthropy with a call-and-response paean to negativity, while “Best Life” is brightened by bassist/co-songwriter Amanda Tannen’s more melodic backing vocals as Katz holds court on the virtues of Juuling on coffee shop patios. Elsewhere, Cheekface wigs out about everything from government authoritarianism (“Call Your Mom”) to the lack of pockets in hospital gowns (“Crying Back,” in which Katz declares that “crying’s the new black”). On “Original Composition,” they fret over climate dread and quote Santana’s “Smooth” in the same breath.
Musically, the band excels at jittery, uptempo indie-rock with new-wave flourishes and cheerily simplistic choruses, like Talking Heads circa Little Creatures. But these exuberant chords are inevitably a palette for Katz’s mile-a-minute talk-singing. Cheekface takes influence from legendary nonconventional vocalists like Lou Reed and Jonathan Richman, though at times—and particularly on “Do You Work Here?”—Katz’s low, nasally voice bears more an uncanny resemblance to Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening. The band’s humor also evokes the goofy irreverence of early-aughts pop-rock outfits like Fountains of Wayne and Cake. (The cowbell on “Don’t Get Hit by a Car” makes it a kissing cousin of Cake’s “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” groove.)
It helps that Cheekface has upped the melodic quotient of their material substantially since Therapy Island. The band cites fellow Californians the Minutemen as a major influence—you can hear it in their penchant for channeling fascist dread into stream-of-consciousness absurdism—but even D. Boon never wrote a hook as sugary as the chorus in “Best Life.” Equally hooky is “Don’t Get Hit by a Car”: Katz rambles his way through the verses, cramming in nonstop quips without regard for meter or rhyme (“Let’s get canceled! / Let’s get canceled together!”) before abruptly pivoting to a melodic singalong during the chorus. Other tracks are catchy in more subversive ways; you might wake up in the morning and find the words “Keep! The receipts! If you want to return life’s gift to the mall!” cycling through your head.
At times, it’s hard not to wish Cheekface would stretch out a bit instrumentally. The band has a clear knack for groove, but seems hesitant to wield it fully or ride out their songs past the three-minute mark; these tracks are unfailingly brief and dominated by Katz’s wordier tendencies. (“Big Big Friend” is the exception, with an exhilarating instrumental breakdown in lieu of a bridge.) But Cheekface’s appeal hinges on your tolerance of their humor and tendency to smirk at late-capitalist decline. Plenty of songwriters react to the bleak present with a pall of self-important heaviness. This band prefers to channel the sheer pointlessness of the modern world into garbled absurdism, and there is enough of that on Emphatically No. to last you a while.
Zach Schonfeld is a freelance writer and journalist based in New York. He contributes regularly to Paste, Pitchfork, VICE, and other publications. Previously, he was a senior writer for Newsweek.