The word “alternative” doesn’t mean what it once did in the context of popular music. R.E.M. was an alternative to Def Leppard. Sonic Youth was an alternative to Guns ‘N’ Roses. So what choice, if any, might audiences pass over in favor of a band like Cheerleader?
The fresh-faced Philadelphia outfit pull out all the stops that would otherwise pigeonhole them into the guitar-less grit-less corner of indie/alternative (think Imagine Dragons and Capital Cities). There’s nothing being deferred and chosen over another more ubiquitous option. The group’s debut LP, the cheerily titled Sunshine of Your Youth, is an exercise in radio rock populism that takes an honest swipe at the broadest possible swath of music listeners. But who, if anyone, does Cheerleader’s broad net snatch up?
“New Daze” is upbeat radio-ready indie pop by the numbers, a pristine wall of sound that hides guitars somewhere in the gleaming keyboards and layered vocals, and even goes the extra mile to tack on a wordless “ba-ba”-along part. If we concede Cheerleader the benefit of the credibility doubt, you might say that their attempt at a My Bloody Valentine-esque instrumental singularity falls just short of the goal, and into a bland, wavy cove of synth claps that work to negate the desired immersion, and that’s a big if. The title track is a bizarre intersection of indie electronica and arena rock, but again adopts a textureless, borderless approach to studio production. It all blurs together into a bland, nebulous cloud. Literally and figuratively, Cheerleader’s songs have no edge. On second thought, both of those meanings are figurative…but you understand the point. There’s little to punctuate contemporary indie clichés besides slightly older clichés, like the grating whistle section in “Do What You Want.”
“Haunted Love” sounds promising. Its echoey, minimalist guitar and trebley bassline sounds enough like New Order to let slip the rhyming of “day” with “Californ-eye-aye.” The song forms Sunshine’s high water mark. Sadly, “A Million Ways” pulls us right back into serenely pressed mire; it’s just so jovial and agreeable and ignorable, like background music in some hip romantic comedy. The lyrics sound like a survey of indie rock lyrics and sonic trends that are meant to evoke some weird innate nostalgia. “And I know what they’ll say / Get a job, act your age / But I know that it’s useless / Cause I’ll never change.” Amirite, fellow angsty, rebellious youths? Who’s writing this shit? Dee Snider? Actually, that would be awesome.
What were we to expect from a band who named themselves Cheerleader?
Cheerleader are kind of like Foster The People, but The People have far more energy despite also having an equal amount of whistling and hand clap snare drums. Cheerleader come close to being in the same league as MGMT’s weaker material, but the electronic duo are miles more musically inventive. They even reach for the Death Cab for Cutie corner, but that group never would have made it out of the gate in the first place had it not been for Ben Gibbard’s sensitive intellectual lyrics and subtle instrumental arrangements, both of which Sunshine of Your Youth conspicuously lacks. Even second tier alt-rock radio bands like Neon Trees and Walk The Moon have slightly more depth of sound, and it’s painful to use Walking The Moon as a positive example. Sorry, gang. A narrowed focus and new sound engineer might behoove you the second time around.