Sophisticated British Guitar Pop
The last Cheese record was a compilation of tracks that showed a fine ear for the pop hook, classic British wit, and the occasional resemblance to other great British acts like XTC. The album crackled with energy, managing to balance its pep with its pop.
This new full-length has many of the same charms, but it's an entirely more subdued and sophisticated take on pop. The vestiges of XTC are still there, and while that band has dabbled in jazzy and lounge music sounds, Cheese goes full bore on some tracks. This is a very effective melding of styles that results in Cheese carving out a bit more distinctive identity.
Four songs into the disc, this identity crystallizes on "Underworld". Lilting and lush music with a tinge of unease that befits the mildly disquieting lyrics. This is Sergio Mendes spiked with a hint of psychedelia and a twist of Jimmy Webb. Lead Cheese-man Marco Rossi begins the song with a shimmery acoustic guitar playing a downbeat part. As the song moves on, strings come in and Rossi adds accents with tres-‘60s guitar fills. The middle eight leads to a pithy acoustic guitar solo. The song has a dreamy quality and instantly grabbed my attention.
This is followed by "Nothing to See". This is cut from the cloth of Paul McCartney, Andy Partridge and likeminded writers. In listening to this song, I was struck by how there may be a finite number of note combinations, yet all it takes is finding the right one to trigger a pleasure spot in the brain. Here, the pleasing pop becomes sublime when Rossi conjures up a brief rise and fall melody when he sings the title phrase – yes, you'll have to hear it for yourself. But it's one of those moments pop fans live for. The song itself is a melancholy contemplation, about emptiness, pain and avoidance: "And people still recycle pain/you wear them out/to use again." There's also a fiery guitar solo that leads into a psychedelic string interlude. And after the final verse, the song heads out on more strings. It's quite something.
Yes, these are layered pop songs. At their core, most of these are simple tunes that would sound swell with Rossi on his acoustic guitar. But these are built up so that they can sound as wonderful as possible. Not that everything is drenched in marzipan and frosted roses. One of the most compelling tracks is the spartan "Sea Fret". The song is a simple metaphor – a lost love is like a pearl that has fallen to the ocean floor. Rossi's strong acoustic guitar playing is augmented by guest Tom Hughes on Hammond Organ and Cheesemate Alan Strawbridge adding some backing vocals. It is pretty and powerful.
There are quite a few other top notch tunes. The closer "Wax Museum" is another song with a hint of sea breeze and bossa nova cool. This song has two or three different hooks, one from the melody, one from a neat guitar fill by Rossi, and the rhythm of the refrain: "Place your hands/where I can see them/we'll take a cast for the wax museum's/gallery of shame". "Zero And Counting You Down" is a shiny pop song that sounds like an Indian summer day, with a hint of fall to come wafting in the background. It's happy with something else going on underneath. "Fallen From the Sun" is one of the more muscular songs, with a full band and some robust guitar playing, yet it still has a characteristic pop touch.
This is sophisticated British pop of the sort that I can never get enough of. It was a long time coming, and the care and attention to detail show.