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Cherry Death - "Saccharine" | Album Review

by Tim Crisp (@betteryetpod)

My introduction to Oklahoma City’s Cherry Death came last summer at a house show in Hammond, Indiana. The show’s 8 pm start time turned out to be 9 or 9:30 and everything was moving pretty leisurely, leaving me a little cranky by the time Cherry Death started their set. Tired eyes, however, turned very quickly to unadulterated joy as I was blasted with a wave of power pop tones that followed a lineage that begins with Fifth Dimension and Younger Than Yesterday-era Byrds. This was a band so clearly locked into the world of Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark, and successors Alex Chilton, Mitch Easter, and Peter Buck. A world that I had a shared affinity for, so much so that when lead-singer Tim Buchanan announced their last song, adding “it’s a cover of a cover,” I knew it was just a matter of which McGuinn interpretation of a Dylan song he was referring to. It was “My Back Pages” and I was hooked. 

Cherry Death was touring that summer on their third full length, Saccharine, which, at the time was only available on cassette and digitally. That is until this past June when Chicago’s Not Normal Tapes teamed up with Detroit label Syncro System to release it as a double LP. The record’s attachment to Not Normal—a label which mostly focuses on hardcore—is fitting. While sonically aligned to something far from it, there’s a tangible punk ethos to Cherry Death. Maybe it’s the enclave of musicians who appear on the record (there are over a dozen credited players, all of whom have an attachment to OKC DIY) or the fact that the band was so hands on with the production (Buchanan assisted in mixing). Maybe it’s Buchanan and guitarist Taylor McKenzie’s membership in OKC hardcore outfit American Hate. What’s clear is that this is music for the freaks, by the freaks, from the aptly nicknamed Freak City.

Saccharine is chock full of powerful hooks, gorgeous harmonies, and tonally perfect guitar playing. “Cool Rush” and “Through The Walls” are ideal summer pop gems, infectious and densely layered. Jangly guitars sit atop lap steel and textured acoustic tracks. There's a lushness that comes through the speakers and several points of focus to reward attentive headphone listening. Multi-part harmonies shine throughout Saccharine. Two, sometimes three voices work to accompany Buchanan and accent his mood to thrilling effect. No song on the record benefits more from these harmonies than the minimalist “Horrible World.” The song features a single acoustic guitar track, some handclaps, and Buchanan and company repeating the phrase “horrible world that will get you down.” Saccharine is marked by Buchanan’s melancholic introspection. It’s an outlook that comes with its share of bleakness, but the record is filled proclamations of joy and appreciation. “Shade it leans and softly breathes,” he reflects on “You And Me.” “Yes it’s right.”

Similar to fellow pop students and spiritual compatriots Tenement, Cherry Death utilize Side C of their double LP for longform exploration. Whereas Tenement’s “A Frightening Place For Normal People” off 2015’s Predatory Headlights played in improv jazz, Cherry Death’s “Brilliant Love” works within a psychedelic landscape. The near thirteen-minute track, which was recorded live, features Buchanan and Lenora Lavictoire on alto saxophones. Bass and keyboard hold to a steady descending progression. The drums mostly stay in check while other layers of percussion, feedback, and saxophones work to create a thick, slightly claustrophobic ensemble of noise. The song never swells toward explosion though. While there is a lot of individual racket, everything stays tied to that walk down. The effect is a moving and beautiful track, one that makes you thankful for the double LP as an open and free form.

Late album tracks “Do You Change Your Mind” and “Diadora” bring a driving bounce back into the record after the interstellar sojourn that is “Brilliant Love.” The tracks bring to mind late-80’s McGuinn disciples Matthew Sweet and Velvet Crush. Energetic and blossoming with hooks and overdriven guitars. Saccharine closes with its title track, which features Buchanan alone with an acoustic guitar, taking stock. “Now I could use a few good years / Maybe you could too / Til death serene, so saccharine.” It’s the melancholic voice we’ve heard throughout the record, but a sense of hope shines through. Saccharine, in many ways feels like a record about being alone, about quietly taking inventory, but it’s also a record of goodness. Of embracing small moments of joy and finding comfort in your surroundings, sugary and sweet.