Expect the Unexpected | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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Expect the Unexpected




Introducing Lemon

(Skin Graft)

Cheer-Accident is a leap of faith: from their point of view, a slo-mo flight that's lasted 20 years so far; to an audience member, a candy store full of Forrest Gump's inscrutable chocolates (or maybe more like Harry Potter's beloved Every Flavour Beans--there's some vomit and earwax in the mix just to keep things interesting). This is the group that once ended a performance (one of the farewell-to-Lounge Ax nights) by singing "It's a Small World" in sickly-sweet, angelic-pure falsetto harmony over and over for...well, I didn't have a watch, but it was a bloody long time. Meanwhile, over the many years they've been honing their complex and unpredictable confections, they've stealthily become one of the best prog bands working--one of the relatively few that actually seems progressive, actually moving toward something.

Great pop is about giving the people what they want, but great experimental music is about giving the people something they didn't want, because it hadn't occurred to them yet. Lots of music fans don't particularly want too much of the element of surprise: they aim to nurture and maintain a specific mood and don't like being snapped out of it, which is why genres that celebrate the familiar sell so well. But the fact is, even surprise becomes familiar. Free jazz has conventions of its own based on 40-year-old Ornette Coleman records; much avant-garde music remains comfortably within the confines of John Cage's 50-year-old turf. Confrontational stage antics cease to be truly so the minute the audience knows they're coming and starts paying to see them, and most legitimately unpredictable performers--Axl Rose, say--lose currency fast.

Maybe surprise is just flat-out overrated: it's certainly overhyped, claimed to exist in places where it really doesn't. Maybe the worship of it in rock fandom is a hangover from the Woodstock Nation days, back when the drugs were so good people were often genuinely shocked by sunrise. Still, there's a kernel of real need there, and I've caught myself wanting surprise so badly I've tried to will it into being. You probably have too.

Cheer-Accident always surprise me somehow. The full-surround, all-senses-engaged effect of their live performances may not be there on record, but what is there, as on their new Introducing Lemon, is what was always best about prog: you don't know what's coming next. Close attention is requested and rewarded. You won't get the full effect of any twist or turn if you aren't paying attention, because each one does in fact build on what's gone before--it's no non sequitur for surprise's sake alone. Unlike a goodly amount of avant stuff, Cheer-Accident do not ascetically deny a listener the pleasure of resolution. There are resolutions aplenty in their complex songs, even a fertile excess of them--but never the ones anticipated. The overall sensation is one of suspension--maybe it's coming now, maybe later, maybe it's right around the bend of the next tempo change...or not. In the meantime: feats of virtuosity and jovial musical humor, blasts of horns from the ether. Those little bits of epiphany within the course of a long song are closely related to the epiphanies of improv, although Cheer-Accident's music is more often than not very tightly composed.

That's right--they plan this, usually with an unerring sense of where sounds belong--well, to them, that is. The band's genesis, as a collection of high school boys knocking around in various basements circa 1981, seems to have been all about trial and error, though nowadays the public hears very little error. It's as if all those kids with bedrooms full of half-dismembered Commodore 64s really did bring about the cyborg revolution (even if just for themselves and their closest 3,000 Internet buddies).

The triumph of Cheer-Accident is a nerd apotheosis on a personal scale, the result of commitment to their difficult and unprofitable hobby, of constant attention to detail, and it requires something of the same on the listener's part to fully appreciate it. Try to pay close enough attention to see Cheer-Accident in slo-mo, the way they see themselves, and what you'll witness looks like a falling cat: lots of serpentine twisting in midair and no knowing which direction they'll take off in when they hit the ground on all four feet, though it will probably turn out to be the right one.

According to cofounder Thymme Jones (via e-mail), the project began when "we were still in high school and would just sporadically (there was a community of about 7 or 8 of us dorks) get together to either free-form improvise or work on structured material. All of this would get recorded. (I can assure you!) CHEER-ACCIDENT was merely the umbrella for all of the stuff that gushed out of us whenever we would all get together. We didn't become a proper band until July of '87 when Chris Block, Jeff Libersher, and I played our first show." (Due to the proliferation of cassettes distributed among various sets of friends and wider, Jones isn't sure how many records Cheer-Accident can be said to have made--conflicting discographies abound--but he reckons it more or less from Sever Roots, Tree Dies, which the group released on vinyl in 1988.)

Now as then, the members--Jones and Libersher plus guitarist Jamie Fillmore and new bassist Kurt Johnson, who replaces Dylan Posa--spend a lot of time playing together, and record most all of it. Hours--hell, days or weeks--of improv recordings are the soil in which the compositions grow.

The improv influence is clear to me: improv lives and dies on attention. Every note, every moment, every creative lull, counts because it has to--there is, ideally, nothing rote to fall back on. The listener who doesn't pay attention gets lost; the player who doesn't listen to the other players gets isolated. This is nowhere near as true of most music: there's a beat to follow, a chord progression or riff pattern that stays steady, a melody or theme established that we've got to get back to sooner or later. Not so with Cheer-Accident, who enforce rapt attention with a sort of playfulness that works with a shocking efficiency, even on drunks. Even familiar songs get a new dimension live, because the visceral pleasure of seeing and hearing such non-Euclidean corners turned so well is something best shared, like a sports victory.

As background music, Introducing Lemon can blur into a sonic morass, a sort of primordial chaos from which occasionally some rare and gorgeous form of life appears, only to disappear just as quickly. If listened to closely, it's like a heavily magnified tour of a forest floor, where everything is alive, interconnected, and rendered strange and wondrous. There are anchors of the familiar, though, all the more startling for their new context. (Hey, that sounded a little like Fripp there; hey, is this bit meant to be a Gainsbourg parody?)

A recent performance at the Abbey Pub demonstrated nicely how this all works in 3-D. The witty neo-glitter of Bobby Conn & the Glass Gypsies went down smooth in its way, but Cheer-Accident came on rigorously deadpan at first, with guitarist Libersher sitting in a chair and pretending to drive a car for quite some time while the tux-clad Johnson militantly refused to crack a smile until he had to, even with Fillmore thrashing and mugging around with a double-neck like an especially dissolute Jimmy Page. Jones, behind the drum kit in his I ª Iraq T-shirt, just looked impishly sorrowful. Meanwhile, the horn section walked onstage, then off, then back on, then additional vocalists showed up, until the stage was crowded all-star-telethon style.

This is a band that's kept a cable-access show, Cool Clown Ground, going for ten years as a side project; this is a band that understands the proper place of theatrics, which is to say, all over the place--a far cry from the dour antiperformance of some avant-garde players. Yet it's never quite "theater": there's never a point at which listeners can say to themselves, "Oh, that's what it means!" and thereby let themselves pay less than full attention. Each successive passage, be it dreamy-sweet or aggressively crunchy, demands to be savored, because it won't last long.

You can actually feel each moment flipping inexorably into the past as they play, but the bittersweet never drags the music down, because there's always something exciting up ahead, conveying if not necessarily conventional optimism then a profound curiosity (though I'd say curiosity is itself a form of optimism), condensing improv's range of possibility and minimalism's microcosmic rapture into crunchy rock 'n' roll sound bites without dumbing it down (much). That's the promise of longevity: freedom to let go of each passing moment because a new one is on its way. The journey seems so quick, quick as a leap, that way: you might be amazed to find that 20 years have passed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.

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