Cheekface Turn Doomscrolling into a Dance Party on 'Emphatically No.'
Published Feb 03, 2021There's a line from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines that I invoke often when talking about the role of therapy in my life: "I should have realized our destiny was never to stop Judgment Day; it was merely to survive it." Therapy isn't meant to cure our problems, but to teach us how to coexist with them. I imagine, then, that my oft-desired inner peace would probably sound a lot like the music of Cheekface. The LA-based pop-rock trio are acutely aware of society's many ails and crises, but instead of trying to either lead the revolution or ignore it completely, their music is a coping mechanism in and of itself that keeps the problems front and centre without letting them win.
Cheekface pack every tune with a bombardment of sharp hooks and even sharper lyrics, with the lyrical oeuvre of an old-school Facebook status highlight reel come to life. With lines like "The climate changed and I left it on read" and "Of course I relate to Lena Dunham, I relate to every annoying genius," the album's best moments are self-aggrandizing self-owns that explore millennial ennui, helplessness and corporate disenfranchisement, set to a series of equally brisk and punchy power-pop tracks that turn doomscrolling into a rockin' dance party. Filtered through Greg Katz's disaffected speak-singing, which sounds like Jonathan Richman after a trip through the Total Perspective Vortex, Cheekface come off like Parquet Courts' snarkier younger sibling (and that's saying something) or the Dismemberment Plan with the edges shaved off, taking both bands' impossible mixes of sardonic and confrontational and giving it the clearest mix possible.
Emphatically No. is less an album than a collection of singles, of which half were released regularly during the two years since Cheekface's 2019 debut, Therapy Island. Each track pumps out a parade of riffs, hooks and quips in mostly three minutes or less, with remarkably consistent quality. (Though none are able to hit the sprint of Therapy Island crown jewel "Eternity Leave," which blitzes through all of that plus airhorns in 93 seconds.) Emphatically No. takes the best moments of its predecessor and cuts out all the fat, of which there was little to begin with. What the new album's songs lack in variety, they make up for in sheer infectiousness, with the trio's air-tight arrangements and Katz's barrage of quotable one-liners enough to drive each track home.
And it is most certainly a barrage — by the time the impact of a zinger like "Phone call from 'Unknown,' I answer just to have someone to talk to" or "I never 'don't panic' so I always 'don't try'" subsides, it's been followed up by another equally biting line. Songs aren't differentiated by vibe or gimmick, but by the scorching lyrics and indelible earworms. Like the 24-hour news cycle, it's unrelenting, but the band's hook-heavy formula provide the balloons to keep the lyrics' heart-wrenching anchors from weighing things down too much.
The band spell out their ethos in the chorus of Emphatically No.'s opening track, an on-its-face uplifting plea to "Listen to your heart / Keep on keeping on / Just say no to drugs / Eat a healthy lunch," undermined by the rest of the band shouting out a dry 'no' between every line. It's only more sour from there, but even amid lyrics like "Everything is okay, got my old phone replaced / Now I do nothing faster than I did yesterday" and "I come from a long line of people / A long line of people who procreated," there's an underlying peace of mind over needing to take a dance break every once in a while.
Cheekface's songwriting core are industry lifers you've probably never heard of — vocalist Greg Katz is an artist manager, label owner and university lecturer, while bassist Amanda Tannen was a member of onetime-'00s buzz band stellastarr* before settling into a career as an art director and graphic designer (she also designs Cheekface's art, all of which looks similar to the album cover above). They've distilled their lifetimes of experience into a series of wry missives that are jubilant enough to bop along to but cutting enough as to make the return to reality smoother. By constantly invoking markers of escapism and consciousness, Emphatically No. wrings as much fun as possible out of decidedly not-fun times. (New Professor)