Album Review: Cheekface – Emphatically No.

[New Professor Music; 2021]

If anyone wants to make a (depressing) time capsule for the years 2017 to 2021, they would do well to put Cheekface‘s records in it: their music is the sound of trying to maintain a brave face as an anxious millennial in the Trump era. The L.A. indie-punk trio – lead vocalist Greg Katz, bassist Amanda Tannen, and drummer Mark Edwards – actually came together in the trepidatious months following the outgoing President’s 2017 inauguration. Unsure and uncaring about any possible success for their new band, their wry and witty songs of millennial troubles soon hit a chord with audiences anyway.

Their 2019 debut album Therapy Island, has now been followed by Emphatically No. and it’s more of the same, which is a good thing. Katz once again talk-sings on relatable subjects, including mental health (“I am young, dumb and full of psychiatric medication”) and political woes (“I want to overthrow the government – or at least the bad part”). The bouncy opener ““Listen To Your Heart.” “No”” features a chorus full of those types of demeaning statements that usually leave one incredulous: the likes of “Listen to your heart,” “Keep on keeping on,” “Turn the other cheek,” and “Eat a healthy lunch” are each rebuked with a resounding chanted “No.”

Throughout, Katz mentions consumerist companies such as Apple, Waffle House, and Panda Express; in “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Calabasas”, four brands of water are noted in the opening lines. The effect is to imagine one sauntering through a typical American mall, making droll statements at the vapid surrounding emptiness, like a disillusioned 90s slacker. The fuzzy punk of “Call Your Mom” is a condemnation of our collective inattentiveness as Katz lists modern signifiers which flash by at breakneck speed (“Who’s the Russian oligarch now? / The oatmilk latte / the undercover cops”).

Edwards (utilising propelling staccato drumming on “Do You Work Here?”) and Tannen (invigorating the rhythm on “No Connection” and the jangling “Loyal Like Me”) provide much on the album but Katz is such a strutting lead. His spoken word tirades are performed like a looser Andrew Savage, or a lighter Jeffrey Lewis. It’s not difficult to imagine him enjoying a decent career as a humorist in an alternative world. He has a gift for Wildean epigrams and aphorisms: on “Best Life” he notes “They say smiling’s contagious, but you know, so is yawning”; the Pavement-indebted “Crying Back” sees him saying “What is a stalker but a friend that you don’t like?”

The lyrics explore social commentary with the lightest of touch and the joke is mostly on Cheekface themselves. Katz knowingly says on “Original Composition”, a track about the climate crisis, “The bees died off and I left it on read”; while on “No Connection” he concedes “Well just let me know when you finish taking down capitalism, man / Until then I’m gonna stay inside.” The closing track “Don’t Get Hit by a Car” has a remarkable strike rate: “600 white guys have formed a line to give me advice,” he mocks; “And of course I relate to Lena Dunham – I relate to every annoying genius,” and most sardonically he shouts “Let’s get canceled together!” Crucially, lines like these are what ensure that Cheekface’s music never becomes parodical; it’s simply too self-effacing and self-deprecating, revelling in its upbeat awareness and goofiness.

Whenever it might be, a third Cheekface album will arrive into a changed political landscape in their home country under Joe Biden. But, the issues will still remain to discuss and contemplate, and Cheekface’s gift for combining the mundane and the dystopian together will always remain a delight.