There’s been a lot of talk this year about melancholy and the apocalypse, as if that’s some new thing that wasn’t hip in the ’00s and the ’90s and the ’80s and every decade in which human beings have been able to carve their thoughts into a rock with a chisel. The only things that change are the circumstances, which demand different tools and different shades of emotion. It’s an disorienting world out there. It takes a certain instinct to move past the cliches and pull out exact colors out of the kaleidoscope.
Enter Cheshi, from Frederick, Maryland, who are sending us into the latter half of February with a searing new 5-song EP. They’re unsigned so far, though if any DIY labels on the East Coast have any sense, they won’t be unsigned for long. Cheshi got started in 2015, and have been playing shows and festivals in the Maryland area, and crafting their sound with a steady series of releases, including their debut “FFF” and a standalone single “To Lose” for a compilation album of Maryland artists. Building off of the solo work of musician and visual artist Ashli Cheshire, the band has brought together a collective vision that they like to call “darkPOP”, a hazy headspace where emo rock, indie folk, and alt pop all come together to grieve.
The emo rock shows up front and center on the first track, “Thank You”. Evan Baswell lays down a cymbal-heavy beat, on which lead guitarist Trevor Williams and bassist Matthew Jachowski build a melodic meditation on lo-fi ’90s alternative rock. Ashli handles rhythm guitar and vocals, and her low throaty delivery melts perfectly into the echoing chords. She told one interviewer that Cheshi’s music is supposed to hit you like rolling waves, and that’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s so easy to try to create a sound like this and wind up with something unfocused and toothless. As Trevor lets a series of higher notes penetrate the second verses, and the downcast fog of Matthew’s basslines and Ashli’s strumming, you’re not just focused. You’re enthralled.
The highlight of the EP earned itself a music video. “Bug Dance” highlights Matthew’s hypnotic grooves, leading a march into midnight as Ashli speaks in a quavering voice about how “I can feel my skin pull tight / against the void and flame inside.” You won’t forget that opening in a hurry. You won’t forget the painstaking advances, as Evan pounds away and ramps up the tension with fills. At just the right moments, the band breaks into a abrupt, epic chorus. These guys play indie pop, but the volume and the urgency is the match of any post-hardcore band from the last decade. “Stones” amplifies this, right at the end. It takes everything that “Bug Dance” does right and distills it into something simpler and more primal, culminating in a feral breakdown at 2:15.
It’s not all electric, though. After the roar and din of “Thank You” and “Bug Dance”, “Sentimental” contrasts with a quiet picking of an acoustic guitar. We barely even hear a drum until 2:00, and it gives the band time to explore their soulful indie folk side, which in turn gives both Trevor’s gentle electric guitar and Ashli’s softened voice new dimensions. The melody doesn’t change much and it doesn’t have to. It slowly works its way in your head. Even when everyone gets plugged back in for “You Don’t Know Safe”, the opening chords reminded me of a gothed-up take on Fleetwood Mac. There’s a shadow of Stevie Nicks in the way Ashli howls when the tempo speeds up and Evan goes at his drumkit like he’s heralding the end of the world.
The band’s songwriting is the foam on the crest of those waves Ashli was talking about. It’s beautiful and it feels like it may dissipate at any minute. We’ll have to come back to “Bug Dance” for a moment. As Ashli laments about “[a] curse not revealed in sight / We are corpses proclaiming might,” and asks “who plays the god in your life?”, the lyrics bare existential insecurity, and the delivery betrays a deeper insecurity, one that makes you pay close attention to how Evan builds the momentum of the drums before launching into an emotional instrumental, as layered vocals pile on. It’s simple, and haunting. The spectre of death, skepticism, and limitation follows us in “Thank You” (“And curse the page the prophet writes / The only thing I own are bones”), “You Don’t Know Safe” (“Your greed has a hold, / You’re no longer dear to me / Sucking at the edges of a selfish hope, you drain”), and “Stones” (“The loss of meaning has been won / I didn’t take the time to stray / I only took the chance to run”).
As any good poet knows, however, to meditate on death alone is a creative death as much as a philosophical one. There are other and brighter forces at work. They’re not silver linings, and they’re all the more valuable for that. We see desire surface on “You Don’t Know Safe” where Ashli quietly reflects on how “[a]ll my dreams are dying as I’m watching her undress / In a systematic cold,” a cold that is shaken by the desire to “open up my empathy and serve me to your God”. In “Sentimental”, we read a beautiful exhortation to “[b]reathe instead of answer”, and that someone’s “body is a hillside / and I have been collecting rain”. It’s tempting to tie it all to one set of experiences, but there seem to be a number of perspectives shaping lines like “Thank you, thank you / For teaching me just what I’m not,” celebratory and defeatist all at once.
There’s some who might criticize the simplicity of the songs, mistaking complicated composition for inherent superiority. As a five-song EP, the format works perfectly. Not a single song overstays its welcome, and every song, in fact, creates a slightly different atmosphere with the given structure– “Thank You” is a little more exuberant, “Bug Dance” is more haunting, etc. True, a whole album of slow buildups and Brand New choruses would get old in a hurry, and require Cheshi to dig deeper into their folk side, and explore other facets of their alt-rock influences. If anything, I’m excited to see where Cheshi goes next with their sound, because after such a beautiful release, I can only imagine what a 10-12 track album would sound like.
The album artwork was taken by Ashley Renee Hoffman when we travelled to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the Smoky Mountains. We were literally in a cloud, it was quite surreal.All the trees were dying from a disease that the mass of tourists had brought in from other parts of the country. And it’s like, “Do you want to focus on the good? Or the bad?” And my whole thing is you can focus on both, especially for change, not only external change, but internal as well. You have to be real.
Buy/stream on Bandcamp.