Cheap Girls - Giant Orange
Label: Rise Records
Release Date: February 21, 2012
When you think of the qualifications for the perfect “favorite little cult band” (the kind you tell some friends about, but not all of them, because, hey, they’re YOUR secret), it’s hard to find a better candidate for the position than Cheap Girls. Power-trio? Check. Slightly anachronistic, crooning vocals? Check. Crunchy rock without pummeling you over the head? Check. Throwback power-pop hooks? Check. If you like sturdy rock with a bit of 90’s alternative grit, look no further than these Michigan natives’ third-full length, Giant Orange for a breezy dose of throwback rock bliss.
The band’s pay-what-you-want debut, Find Me a Drink Home was an impressive, well- developed set of opening remarks from a promising young band, with songs like “No One to Blame” evincing an unassuming sophistication in their power-chord crunch. Their next full length, My Roaring 20’s, while a charming record in its own right, was a bit of a holding pattern, still full of promise but leaving Cheap Girls in need of taking the next step. Giant Orange, the band’s first album for the ever-diversifying Rise Records, is that step.
Sure, the production (by Against Me's Tom Gabel) has improved, polishing up some rough edges without ever overproducing, but that’s not where the big improvement is. What makes Giant Orange the best Cheap Girls album yet is their most consistent set of songs and an increased understanding of how even the smallest dynamic changes and arrangement tweaks can keep a record fresh instead of repetitive. It makes all the difference.
The album starts off with one of its strongest moments, the propulsive “Gone All Summer”. The song is a driving wall of guitar crunch, though it never rises above a midtempo punk ramble. Like most songs on the record, it owes something major to Smoking Popes, particularly in bassist/singer Ian Graham’s crooning, unhurried vocals, but it also cops a bit of The Lemonheads’ lovably blasé approach, as he sings “I don’t know when I’ll be coming back to the world.” Graham isn’t a world-beater as a lyricist, but he does have a knack for a charming phrase or two per song, usually tinged with ennui or self-deprecation. “I’ve been gone all summer, and I think it’s for the greater good”, he sings, and you can almost see a smirk that could turn someone's frustration with his flaws into a status as a loveable rogue.
The band don’t switch the formula up too much on Giant Orange, mostly sticking to casually crooning vocals, an occasional harmony, crunching power-chords and nail-on-the-head drumming. What keeps the album just this side of monotonous are the little touches. On “Communication Blues”, the opening, sliding guitar lick is extremely reminiscent of The Replacements, adding a different flavor to another downtrodden punk rock song about a girl who brings you down: “When you call, I don’t think that I’m safe at all, because you know how to get me running back to the places I’ve gotten past”. In “Manhattan on Mute”, guitarist Adam Aymor bites his riff right from mid-90’s Goo Goo Dolls. On “If You Can’t Swim”, each time Graham sings the titular lyric, brother Ben’s drums crash in with surging power and you can feel the real muscle this band is working towards establishing.
Granted, these are relatively small differentiations, and this fact ends up contributing to the record’s Achilles heel: a certain degree of sameness to the tracklist, though less so than on past releases. Almost every song falls into similar structures and sounds. For this reason, “Cored to Empty” is a particular highlight. Rambling in with easy, unpolished acoustic strums, the song is where Graham’s charming lisp comes out, making him seem even more the everyman as he sings about being damaged goods. He lays out the lyrics “When you first found me, I was dirty, broken, cored to empty. I’m not much better now” with a directness and simplicity that is rather endearing, and you get the sense that whoever he’s singing to will certainly forgive him his flaws.
The record’s two strongest songs, however, are more consolidations of what they do well. “On/Off Switches” starts off with one of the few bits of palm-muting on the album as Graham tells a story of a hard-luck loser who keeps falling into the same old rhythms, who goes “From thoughtful, to stupid, and back to loving you like the first time”. When he sings “It’s safe to say I got caught on the short side” you can’t help but root for his loveable loser like the Cubs or Charlie Brown. The best song on the record, however, is its penultimate track, “Pacer. Its greatness is a nightmare for a reviewer, since it mostly just comes down to an indefinable something that makes it run in your head and give you visions of driving with the windows down singing along. From its first ringing chord, it builds up some thunder in its intro before rolling into a propulsive alternating strummed/picked riff in its verse. When it strides into the chorus and Graham sings “Everyone knows I’m a Pacer, baby; I can run all night” and chiming guitar accents echo in a call-and-response, it’s easy to be thankful for little-bands-that-could like Cheap Girls. They’re not going to reinvent the wheel or cause a “next big thing” frenzy, but that’s part of why they’re so easy to love. Power-pop/rock that prizes simplicity and sturdy craftsmanship over showiness isn’t always easy to find, so it’s not hard to treasure Giant Orange and hope for even greater strides from Cheap Girls in the future.