Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Re: that "big project" I've been cryptically alluding to, I am very proud to announce the publication of my cover story on Cheer-Accident in the new issue of Signal to Noise magazine. I'll spare you the spiel on C-A, since I spiel on them with great regularity, and simply say that I'm very, very happy this is out there. It was a long time in the making. Huge thanks are due to all of the following: STN editor Pete Gershon and copy editor Nate Dorward; Thymme, Jeff, Alex, Scott and all other C-A members and associates for their time and hospitality; Darin Gray, Tim Garrigan, Carla Kihlstedt, Weasel Walter, Jim O'Rourke, Steve Feigenbaum, Fred Krueger, Jane Jones and everyone else who contributed invaluable observations and reminiscences; Laal for accompanying me on the various research jaunts, and for her manifold support; and Joe for helping me get a handle on my ideas.
The piece is timed to C-A's fantastic (and fantastically proggy) new album, Fear Draws Misfortune, due out 1/20/09 via Cuneiform.
Obviously, I encourage all to seek the mag out. The article is illustrated with some great photos from Pete, and the issue also includes pieces on Bad Brains' H.R. and Bob Koester of Delmark Records. STN should be available in most indie record shops, in addition to well-stocked newsstands and perhaps Barnes & Noble, Borders and other emporiums of that nature.
With kind permission from Mr. Gershon, I present to you the opening section of the piece by way of a preview. Note that this is only a relatively brief chunk; the full article runs over 6600 words. I can't thank Pete enough for allowing me to stretch out: This story really required it. Enjoy!
No Success Like Failure
After sowing aesthetic mayhem for more than 25 years, Chicago's Cheer-Accident begins to make peace with maturity.
By Hank Shteamer
Screeching to the choir
It's 11:30 on a sunny Sunday morning this past August, and Cheer-Accident is burning another bridge. The group is playing in a bandshell situated on a spacious farm near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the site of the music festival known as Prog Day. As their hour-long set winds down, the seven members lurch around the stage, lie supine, dance, laugh maniacally or pantomime sobbing, each abetting the overall chaos. Drummer Thymme Jones approaches the microphone and addresses the audience in a deadpan: “We like to end every show with poop in our pants.” A few among the sparse crowd giggle; most stare blankly.
Cheer-Accident's current core lineup (Jones, guitarist Jeff Libersher and bassist Alex Perkolup) and several regular guest stars (vocalist Laura Boton and trombonist Mike Hagedorn, along with multi-instrumentalists Todd Rittmann and Andrea Rothschild) have driven 800 miles from their hometown of Chicago to perform at the event, described by its organizers as “the world's longest running progressive rock festival.” It's the kind of gathering where attendees know that the middle-aged man sporting the Camel shirt isn't advertising cigarettes, but his love of the vintage Canterbury prog unit. Fans buzz around the merch tent, obsessing over CDs by groups with names like Cirrus Bay, Schematism and Project Moonbeam. They peruse a program detailing highlights of years past, such as the 1997 edition, which featured violinist David Ragsdale of the band Kansas.
Cheer-Accident isn't as out of place here as it might seem. Its set included plenty of what could have passed for prog, especially the intricate, metallic instrumental “Even Has a Half Life” and the lengthy art-rock suite “Salad Days.” But the show also featured loopier moments that presaged Jones's scatological concluding remark: “King Cheezamin,” for example, a marching-band-tinged jam over which Libersher delivers goofily cartoonish taunts. So while Cheer-Accident acknowledges a considerable debt of influence to many classic acts within the fest's namesake genre, such as Gentle Giant, Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator, that influence is highly selective. The band has adopted all of those artists' drive for originality and none of the self-important solemnity that has marked so many of their latter-day acolytes. Cheer-Accident, therefore, represents the difference between rock that's genuinely progressive and a long-codified notion of Progressive Rock.
In theory, that's a good thing, but not if you're trying to win over the Prog Day crowd. Cheer-Accident leaves the stage, and the day's next act—flaunting flashy chops, tricky time signatures and solemnly philosophical lyrics—instantly reestablishes the fest's status quo. A few gather around the Cheer-Accident merch table to debrief. Some rave, but others grumble. “My kids play with toys and that's what they sound like,” one man quips. “And I take those toys away.”
The band is well acclimated to such dismissal, and even invites it. An old bio issued by Cheer-Accident's sometime label, Skin Graft, put it thusly: “At just about the point where you become convinced that any given [Cheer-Accident] song could make it on commercial radio, they 'blow it' with some left-field turn straight off a cliff.” And this tendency goes far beyond individual tracks. In essence, the band has made a pact with itself that if it can find a way to enliven a composition, album or performance, it will do so by any means, however jarring or self-defeating. Consider this cryptic manifesto printed inside Cheer-Accident's 2003 album Introducing Lemon: “It [i.e., lemon] wilts the lettuce, but it freshens up the salad.” In other words, in the band's eyes, aesthetic tension is endlessly fruitful. Even for the most open-minded listener, Cheer-Accident's constant insistence upon adding acidic accents can be both enlightening and agonizing, sometimes simultaneously.
But Cheer-Accident's art is much more than merely provocative. Imagine a confluence of the grandeur of Yes, the range of This Heat, the irreverence of Ween, the poignancy of Elliott Smith and the mischief of Andy Kaufman, and you'll be getting close to the net effect of Cheer-Accident's musical output since its formation in 1981. Over the course of 13 full-length albums, including Fear Draws Misfortune—due out in January on Cuneiform, a label known for issuing Matching Mole and other old-school prog groups—the band has covered a remarkable amount of terrain, from eerie sound collage to gemlike song and burly math-metal. Figure in years' worth of epic and bizarre live performances, stimulating extramusical happenings, collaborations with many key figures in the Chicago musical underground and an utterly inscrutable cable-access program, and the result is one of the most fascinating creative careers in the modern American underground, in any medium.
Fear Draws Misfortune is an important work for the band, and perhaps its most mature to date. Though the disc covers an impressive amount of ground—complex instrumental rock, eccentric chorales reminiscent of the French prog institution Magma and mournful, horn-abetted interludes—it does so without the aid of Cheer-Accident's beloved lemon. What that means practically is that it avoids outright silliness, challenging the listener and yet never resorting to irreverence. In this sense it fits in perfectly with Cuneiform's recent tradition of backing artists, such as the Claudia Quintet and Ahleuchatistas, that nod to prog's past and yet expand on it in tasteful ways. And this is no minor occurrence, considering that Cheer-Accident rarely fits in anywhere. Even more noteworthy is the fact that this harmony was intentional. The band had talked with Cuneiform several years before about releasing Introducing Lemon, but the deal fell through when Jones & Co. refused to unscramble the record's mixed signals. This time around, though, the musicians actually took the tastes of label head Steve Feigenbaum into account when preparing the disc. In a late-September interview at his apartment in Chicago's Humboldt Park, Jones puts it matter-of-factly: “There were specific aspects of what we do that I didn't think should be included in this.”
Compromise? Maybe in a certain sense. But after so many years of battling convention—not to mention common sense—at every turn, Cheer-Accident has certainly earned the right to call a momentary truce.