Cheerbleederz – ‘EVEN IN JEST’

By Ian Kenworthy

Choosing a band name isn’t easy. Deciding what to listen to as a music fan is even harder. You find yourself wading through bands called Above This or Betray That and a million starting with ‘The’, so when you discover a band calling themselves Cheerbleederz you can’t help but be curious; the name demands attention, so their music had better be good.

Spoiler alert – it is, but it might not be in the way you’d expect.

When the band’s ‘Faceplant’ EP dropped in 2018 it was assured and catchy, and felt like something a bit special. And then it became clear: this is a trio with pedigree, made up of Kathryn Woods, Phoebe Cross and Sophie Mackenzie. Between them they have released literally loads of lo-fi records, most notably in ME REX and Finish Flag. That means technically they’re a supergroup and, oh yes, you can tell.

‘Even In Jest’ is a debut album that knows exactly what it’s doing. If you’re not convinced, just take a look at the artwork. It’s a pencil sketch of the band dressed as clowns – sad clowns – a striking image but equally a wonderful encapsulation of the overall sound. Over ten tracks they embrace duality and double meanings and it sounds like three friends having fun, but it’s also a far deeper and more interesting album than it first appears.

The three-piece use guitar, bass, drums and vocals and to its credit that’s exactly how it sounds; stripped-back and extremely honest. Sitting about halfway between the bright pop sound of The Big Moon and the more DIY punk of bands like Martha, it feels friendly and accessible but with an edge. At times it’s wonderfully noisy including angular guitar tones, screeches in the background and off-kilter yelling, but you can’t escape this being an intensely likeable record. With its indie sound it sits comfortably on the Alcopop! Records roster but is definitely one of their most accomplished signings.

Firstly, and wisely, the band avoid that light, carefree guitar sound you might describe as jangly. Yes, you do get light, upbeat strumming on ‘Nail Biters’ but it’s purposeful and serves the song’s anxious tone well. It’s bright, it’s uplifting, but it’s also not. When it suits, the guitar tone is pleasantly rough, especially on ‘Carbon Copy ‘ and on ‘My Condolences’ where it bites like a chainsaw. This gives the record a powerful edge that feels a little unexpected but holds your attention.  You might even be reminded of a band like Speedy Ortiz as the guitar slides between chords on ‘Cute As Hell’ or plays the dirty solo-like intro to ‘Break Ur Arm’, and this is because both bands have a zesty playing style that forms part of their personality.

Speaking of personality, the band has worked with their go-to producer Rich Mandell who is also partly responsible for this sound. By avoiding the trendy temptations of ladling on autotune or compressing everything to within an inch of its life, he clearly understands the power of fragility and has captured it remarkably well.

You might also notice that many of the songs clock in at just over two minutes. They’re short and to the point but only when they need to be. ‘Lazy Bones’ isn’t afraid to relax a little and drifts over its runtime with strumming guitars and gentle vocal harmonies. Sitting just after the album’s mid-point, it provides a soft interlude amongst the noisier tracks. ‘Pinwheel’ provides an interesting contrast as it also journeys through a series of sounds but is more tightly wound and creates quite a bold climax. Clearly, they’re not interested in being a one-tone band and ‘Love/Hurt’ tries something different. Swapping out the guitars for a simple piano line, it leans back on a popping bassline that harks back to early ’90s video game vistas in that it’s simple but strangely atmospheric, which makes an ideal canvas for its lyrical theme.

With all three members sharing vocals there’s an interesting contrast between songs and listen close enough and you can identify the singer by the shifts in style. There is also a great dynamic created by singing the verses quietly and then belting out the choruses like on ‘Break Ur Arm’. This is also true of the bawdy ‘My Condolences’ where the yelps of ‘Help me!’ are designed to stand out. Make no mistake, for all their careful melodies and bright harmonies there’s a rowdy energy bubbling under the surface and it’s delightful when it bursts free.

Lyrically, the strokes are pretty broad but there’s a lovely current of amongst-friends bitchiness that runs through many of the songs. Often they seem to be from observing and commenting upon people in their daily lives, which leads to some great flickers of wit and even direct put-downs. There’s also a wicked riff on changing knickers numerous times on ‘Cute As Hell’ that feels wry but also quite pointed. Compare this to the band’s earlier work and it follows a similar style but is willing to push the ideas deeper. While it’s often bright and upbeat there’s also a vein of sadness, a hint of regret and a mournful tone that allows them to discuss difficult topics without the songs becoming smothering or uncomfortable. ‘Notes App Apologies’ is specifically about letting go of abusive relationships and, by inverting a popular cultural phenomenon, comes across as accusatory whilst also being uplifting. You might even call its combative tone a “feel-bad anthem”.

Much of the album’s sadness is welled up on the delicate ‘Out Of Body’ which uses the lyric “I think I’ll leave my body, for a little while” to denote obvious abuse connotations. Coupled with the slightly strained singing it creates a fragility and strange beauty that sticks in your mind long after the record plays out. It’s also notable that the bleakest lyrical take plays out over such quiet music, aiming for sadness rather than defiance.

While the name Cheerbleederz sounds like something wry and throwaway, they are in fact a band who like to observe, process and create. Their upbeat music hides far more than it might appear and their debut album is a delight.  With a little scuzz under its fingernails, ‘Even In Jest’ is a charming and thoughtful record with a clear idea of what it’s doing, poise and purpose.

IAN KENWORTHY

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