Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Cheekface Too Much To Ask

Self-released
2022
Self-released
2022

“If you think I suck, would you keep it to yourself?” Greg Katz sings about 40 seconds into Cheekface’s new album. That won’t be necessary; the quirky, talky, jubilantly ironic LA trio is getting better with each release. They’ve been coming fast, too: Too Much To Ask, surprise-released today, is the band’s third album in just over three years following 2019’s Therapy Island and 2021’s Emphatically No. Together they make up a portrait of an increasingly confident unit with a polarizingly distinct point of view.

Cheekface are a love-it-or-hate-it proposition, largely thanks to Katz’s lyrics and vocals. On a purely sonic level this is eminently approachable music: fun, danceable, no-frills indie rock built from little more than Katz’s guitar, Amanda Tannen’s bass, and Mark “Echo” Edwards’ drums. But those tracks become the canvas for a nonstop barrage of quotable quips, sculpted into hooky outbursts where playfulness and sarcasm collide. I imagine their live show is a party-starter. I can also imagine some listeners being overwhelmed or annoyed by the hyper-referential too-muchness of it all, which is very much a feature and not a bug.

Katz takes big swings. Undeterred by the risk of being cringe, he reflects back the absurdities of modern life while toggling between detached screeds and impassioned howling. He has a way of making tongue-in-cheek social criticism feel like fearless vulnerability, like the “THIS IS FINE” meme come to life. In fact, the refrain “Everything is fine!” factors heavily into “We Need A Bigger Dumpster” — because life has become even more of a dumpster fire — between descriptions of sick people coughing all over each other and facetious conspiracy theories about bottled water making you thirsty.

Katz tends to dress down even his fellow progressives: “Ask your therapist who you’re gonna vote for.” Yet he reserves a disarming tenderness for society’s underdogs: “For the garbage man, election day is still garbage day anyway.” (Both phrases underline how often politics subtly come to bear on Too Much To Ask between nods to Tinder and whatnot.) Still, even when he expresses some kind of plainspoken sentiment, it’s usually enmeshed in meme-conversant comedy: “I’m standing in the Wendy’s drive-thru screaming, ‘Fuck all the transphobes!'” he declares on “Pledge Drive,” before a fuzzy voice replies, “Sir, this is a Wendy’s.”

Although talk-singing has been trendy for a few years now, Katz’s sprechgesang isn’t all that congruent with critically acclaimed UK groups like Dry Cleaning and Squid. Cheekface’s closest corollary from across the pond is probably Sports Team or perhaps, if you squint, Wet Leg. But Katz mostly calls back to domestic influences from long before the current zeitgeist, skewering 2020s culture with a disposition informed by decades’ worth of clever, logorrheic indie dudes — guys who tend to be A Lot but are mostly charming enough to pull it off. Surprisingly, he doesn’t much remind me of the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, the all-time champion of this field, but the people who do come to mind are similarly huge personalities (and personal favorites of mine).

James Murphy is one obvious parallel, especially on “Featured Singer,” a clear LCD Soundsystem sendup/tribute that lays the cowbell on thick. “I want to be the featured singer on an EDM song,” Katz declares. “Wedding DJs will cringe when it is requested/ Spin magazine, The Needle Drop, and Reader’s Digest won’t even review it/ But kids will choreograph elaborate dances to my voice on TikTok.” (Later: “No one will march to it in the streets looking for a brighter day/ But ukulele covers of it will crowd your YouTube suggestions.”) The Dismemberment Plan’s Travis Morrison also looms large — that puckish posture that doesn’t even pretend to contain the anxiety crackling beneath the surface — particularly on the tight, airy groove of closer “Vegan Water.” At his most droll, he can resemble Stephen Malkmus; at his most hyperactive, he blasts off like Jeff Rosenstock. Early post-punk and new wave touchstones like Jonathan Richman, Devo, and the B-52’s come to mind.

Because Katz so often talks rather than sings, it can be easy to miss how good he is with melody — or it would be hard to miss if he didn’t start his album by wailing lines as loud and catchy as “Life hands you problems, make problemade!” Sometimes that musicality redeems some of his less compelling lyrical turns; “I’m at the Jamba Juice/ I’m at the therapist/ I’m at the combination Jamba Juice and therapist” doesn’t land, but the ensuing hook “Why do I feel so weird?” sure does. The two approaches pleasingly converge on “You Always Want To Bomb The Middle East,” where Katz infuses a supremely wordy chorus with hip-swiveling surf-rock tunefulness: “You always want to bomb the Middle East on the weekend/ When we could be cutting grass or eating cheese with your girlfriend/ We could learn to read and write in Portuguese or Korean/ But you always want to bomb the Middle East.”

Cheekface are more versatile than you might expect, be it the slicing Television guitar action on tracks like “Pledge Drive” and “Next To Me (Yo Guy Version)” or the chilled-out anorak vibes of the Sidney Gish collab “Election Day.” But even when the keyboard pumps surprising warmth into the groove on “Vegan Water,” Katz’s spiels steal the spotlight. “My brain’s completely full,” he announces on that one, and who could doubt him? “I can do no wrong,” he continues — a less believable sentiment, delivered in jest like so many other Cheekface lyrics. But even if Too Much To Ask serves up the occasional clunker like “Noodles” (full lyrics: “A big cup of noodles/ A giant cup of noodles”), at its best, it’s one of the smartest, most infectious indie rock albums of the year.

Too Much To Ask is out now. Purchase it here.

Other albums of note out this week:

• Calvin Harris’ Funk Wav Bounches Vol 2
• OSEES’ A Foul Form
• Kal Marks’ My Name Is Hell
• Dust Star’s Open Up That Heart
• TOPS keyboardist Marci’s self-titled debut
• Jennifer Vanilla’s Castle In The Sky
• Healing Potpourri’s Paradise
• Jay Worthy & Harry Fraud – You Take The Credit, We’ll Take The Check
• Mall Grab’s What I Breathe
• The Interrupters’ In The Wild
• Planet Drum’s In The Groove
• T Bone Burnett’s The Invisible Light: Spells
• Heavy Gus’ Notions
• Neil Young + Promise Of The Real’s live album and concert film Noise & Flowers
• Eminem’s late-career greatest hits collection Curtain Call 2
• The star-studded compilation Something Borrowed, Something New: A Tribute To John Anderson
• Bobby Shmurda’s BodBoy EP
• Jacob Sartorius’ SLEEP WHEN I’M DEAD EP

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