If New York’s underground punk scene is a great incestuous orgy, consider Cheena the wet spot where its commingled creative juices accumulate. Comprising Margaret Chardiet (aka Pharmakon) and members of Crazy Spirit and Hank Wood & the Hammerheads, the band blends a deceptively disparate swath of influences into a murky stew of lo-fi punk. Equally infatuated with punk’s glam and garage rock precursors as with the bluesy cowpunk of The Gun Club, Cheena aims to carve out a unique identity apart from their constituent members’ other projects.
Although the group has been putting out material since 2014 — a cassette on Lo-fi Lo-Life and a 7-inch on Sacred Bones — Spend the Night With… serves as their debut proper. The album’s unvarnished production helps it feel like a seamless extension of these earlier releases (although perhaps a little lighter on the reverb than the cassettte, All the Cheena Money Can Buy), even when they’re digressing into more melodic territory. “Electric Snoopy Gang” stands out as the biggest departure. The band channels heavy Kurt Vile vibes around Keegan Dakkar’s rubbery bass line and finishes it off with a chorus of slide whistles. Clocking in at a girthy five-and-a-half minutes, it’s practically double the length of any other song on the album and feels it.
But Cheena fare better when they bring the mother-effing ruckus. “Cry for Help” starts in a promising direction, Chardiet galloping off full-steam with the rhythm section while Logan Montana’s languid slide guitar tries desperately to pump the brakes. “7 Nights” drowns Eugene Terry’s Cramps-aping voodoo drumbeat with heaps of melting guitar licks, while “Fever” has a distinctively dirge feel, calling to mind San Francisco sludge-slingers Flipper. Shambolic as all of it sounds, its a friendlier sound than anything these guys have done individually. Singer Walker Behl trades the corpse-croaks he’s known for in Crazy Spirit for a delivery that gestures towards melodicism, even if songs like “Liberated Animal” find him channeling some of Iggy’s “Penetration” vocal tics.
In fact, perhaps the biggest weakness of Spend the Night With… is the degree to which the album feels like an extended series of hat-tips to bygone titans of punk. That patchwork approach to synthesizing decades of alternative music was a staple of label-mates The Men, too (before they decided to scrap it all and become a Tom Petty cover band), but there’s nothing here as viscerally satisfying as “Bataille” or “Grave Desecration”. The constant comparisons Cheena draw to The Gun Club can only work against them in the end, as they never match the moodiness, nor the Southern Gothic mysticism of Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s verse.
Cheena’s inability to rise above the sum of its influences is all the more disappointing for the presence of Chardiet, whose solo work marks her as one of the most unique and galvanizing voices in contemporary noise rock. What would this band have sounded like if she were the one spewing bile all over the mic? Surely her brand of body horror could have yielded imagery more memorable than Behl’s debauched narratives. Of course, I realize I’m coming dangerously close to saying “Wouldn’t this be so much better if it were actually a new Pharmakon album?” It’s obviously unfair to judge an artist’s work in one project for not being sufficiently similar to the one they’re better known for, but Spend the Night With…, for all its squall and rough edges, still feels safe.
Down-and-dirty punk rock is enjoying a bit of a resurgence on the margins of the independent music ecosystem, not just in New York but in metropolitan areas all over the country (see also: Austin’s GLUE and Chicago’s Lil Tits). Within this current musical moment, Cheena offers something different enough to merit a listen, although it’s hard to imagine Spend the Night With… leaving the kind of footprint on the impressionable young artists of tomorrow that the bands and luminaries Cheena so dutifully reference have left on them.
Essential Tracks: “Cry for Help”, “Liberated Animal”, and “Fever”