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October 20, 1994 * Vol. 4, No. 21

Set to Pop

The Cheeksters step out with an (almost) major new album

by Lee Gardner

NEW YORK CITY,9/23/94, 7:45 p.m.

There's a surly crowd already jostling to get into CBGB, the legendary toilet-like punk rock Mecca on the Bowery. But I'm headed next door, to the more genteel CBGB Gallery to catch a special CMJ convention showcase featuring local heroes the Cheeksters. Except as I pull up a drink and a table, there's precious little other clientele and no Cheeksters.

As patrons filter in, Mark Casson and Shannon Hines burst through the door trailing guitar cases and apologies to the club soundman. They've traveled over a thousand miles in car, trains, and taxis on their own nickel to play for 45 minutes with a hired session drummer whom they just met that afternoon. But as they zip through a hasty sound check, the tables down front fill with folks in expensive casual clothing—a clump of music publishing people, a smattering of press, a few record label reps. With barely a moment to sip a beer and draw a deep breath, they're off into their set. Maybe if the right person is here, and if this right person likes them enough, they could be on their way to a label deal, fame and fortune, the works. No pressure.

From the first song, Casson's powerful voice cuts through the cigarette haze, and Hines's bass hooks in with the drummer like they've been playing together for years. When her songs come up, she turns on the charm high-beams, while Casson croons back-ups and strums their loose-limbered acoustic pop music along. The audience applauds with vigor.

After the set the Cheeksters are aflush The publishing people loved them. They're meeting people left and right. Rumor is that Paul Simon is milling about somewhere in the back. Tonight there is buzz round the pair. But day after tomorrow, they have to head back to Knoxville and their day jobs.

In the five years since they met on a train in Europe, Casson and Hines have become a couple, even getting married a few years back. But they have also been playing those local gigs, recording their songs, and wangling the odd out-of-town showcase, all in the hope that they can interest the world at large in their well-crafted pop songs and performances. More than any other unsigned act in town, they are working unabashedly towards stardom of a sort. And now they're starting to make some headway.


Though they've released several choice cassettes for local consumption and promo purposes, the release of their first CD, Hey, What's Your Style, hoists the Cheeksters into a higher league.

"We didn't want to go in and make another demo tape," Hines, a self-described "little old East Tennessee girl," states flatly. "I mean, with or without a record deal, it was time to make an album."

Fortunately, the duo had been spending the last year or so hanging out and jamming with Judybat Dave Jenkins. They started recording some of their tunes in the drummer's basement on a four-track. While the songs they were playing developed a feeling that they liked, Jenkins acquired more and more recording equipment. Soon they had an album's worth of songs and a studio's worth of equipment in Jenkins's basement.

"It got to a stage that we felt happy jamming in that space, and we'd made a lot of recordings before using pretty much the same system," says Casson, who grew up in England's Lake District and Wales. "I guess the main reason we wanted to do it like that, ultimately, is that we wanted to capture that feel and not have the pressure of being in a studio and watching the clock."

"We couldn't have afforded to go into a studio for that amount of time," Hines adds.

Thanks to taking their time with these organically-grown songs (and thanks to Jenkins's engineering skills) the Cheeksters have come up with an album worth the price of their sweat. Casson and Hines's trademark three-minute tips into the mystic have been augmented by the versatile kick of Jenkins kit, and obvious attention to the arrangements makes each track stand out for more than just the indelible melodies. Hey, What's Your Style provides a brilliant major label-caliber rendering of the Cheeksters. But it isn't on a major label—like so much of what they do, they did it all themselves.


One of the things that makes the Cheeksters unique has also made them a little difficult to "sell" to label honchos thus far. Hey, what is your style?

"When you play as a duo, people are going to think 'folk,' especially because I play an acoustic guitar," says Casson. "That tag is a little frustrating now, because I think of us more in terms of your basic pop/rock—whatever that may be."

Actually, if you haven't heard the Cheeksters lately (or yet), you're in for a surprise.

Though the CD and their sets are still filled with a familiar mix of strummulous mid-tempo pop songs and gentle ballads, you might detect a whiff of old soul. And I ain't talkin' 'bout the reincarnated kind.

"It's strange, because when you enter that recording process, whatever you're listening to at the time, you really start listening to it," recalls Hines. "We'd put on Al Green or Marvin Gaye and go 'Man, it has such a groove, such a soulful warm sound.' You want to capture something like that, but we didn't really sit down and say, 'We want to make this album.'"

There is a bit of soul dressing on Style in the occasional wah-wah guitar lick or sax ripple (the latter courtesy of local hired horn Terry Schmidt). And certainly the CD focuses more on groove than past releases. But one of the most arresting elements of the CD is Casson's newfound falsetto on cuts like "Something About You" and "Slide." A slow-jam coo is the last thing you'd expect from a man with his hearty Northumbrian pipes.

"It's really just because I've gotten more confident," Casson explains. "I never realized that I could sing falsetto until I was singing along with a Van Morrison song or something. Years ago I couldn't have wanted to sing like that, because it really sounded soft and lame. But the more I played with it, the more I realized that you could really get a good emotion with that style of singing. It's so fragile."

Conveying emotion, after all, is what the Cheeksters are all about. As Casson explains: "Some bands are very lyrically intellectual—I don't really see us in that way. It's the melody, the overall feeling that's important. I just really want to make music that makes people feel good, the way that a great pop song used to make me feel when I was a teenager."

On good night, they're just about there.


So the Cheeksters work their day jobs in Knoxville, wait to hear back from the contacts they made in New York, and dream of spending their days making music. "I feel like we could go a lot farther," says Hines. "We could make even better records, if we were given the chance to grow without having to hold down full-time jobs. But the path entails a record deal with all its gnarly little traps."

"The bottom line is that we're not getting any younger," says Casson, who, like his wife, is 28. "We'd love to make a living at it, but, you know, we're just plugging away. Still, I feel like we've reached a watershed with this one, something we've been striving towards for years and it's finally arrived. If I passed away tomorrow, I'd die a happy man."

But he knows and I know there are ways he could die much happier.

© Metro Pulse