Cheekster Feature 

A relocated Brit and a Knoxville girl make sweet music

A relocated Brit and a Knoxville girl make sweet music

Several Nashville-centered rock acts are becoming popular enough in England to afford tours of the U.K. The Cheeksters are no exception. The difference is that when the baroque Music City pop group jets overseas, they have a cheap place to stay—their parents’ house. Bandleader Mark Casson grew up in a small town outside of Manchester and went to college in London. Ten years ago, he met his bassist and future wife Shannon Hines when the East Tennessee girl was vacationing in Europe. They hooked up on a train to Amsterdam, moved to Knoxville in 1991, and then relocated to Nashville in 1996.

“We’d done all we could in Knoxville,” Mark says. To that, Shannon adds, “And we couldn’t afford to live in New York or London.” They were torn between Atlanta and Nashville, and chose Music City because they didn’t want to deal with the crush of Olympic tourists in Atlanta.

That journey—partly accidental, partly deliberate—practically mirrors the shape of The Cheeksters’ music, which is shaped both by Casson’s affection for the popular music of his homeland and by his association with Nashville producer Brent Little, whom the couple met after relocating. Little’s gift for instrumentation and his willingness to play around in the studio have allowed The Cheeksters to recreate the intricate, folky sound of late-’60s Britpop, as well as the American rural music that also lights Casson’s fire.

Although Mark Casson is 34 and grew up in Britain’s post-punk era, he had only a passing interest in those musical styles (aside from The Jam, whom he says he loved). While at school in London, he tended to go out and see more American bands than English ones—Green on Red, The Long Ryders, and, yes, Jason & the Scorchers. “But I mostly liked good pop music,” Casson says. He likes “ ’60s music in general. Mid-’60s to late ’60s. The Beatles. Early Bowie, like Hunky Dory and Ziggy. Van Morrison as far as, like, a singer. Curtis Mayfield...the black soul music of the ’70s. Donovan for the psychedelic side. And the early Bee Gees. Neil Young. That’s sort of what I aspire to.”

And that’s sort of what he delivers on Skating on the Cusp, The Cheeksters’ second album, which was self-released earlier this year. Over 11 tracks of dreamy, dramatic rock ’n’ roll, Casson croons like a young Bowie and purposefully strums his acoustic guitar, while Hines carries the bubbly melodies on her bass and Little fills in the remaining space with bluesy electric-guitar licks and whatever trippy stringed instrument he can find. Songs like “Count the Cost” and “If You Like” sprawl out past five minutes as the band members lock into a hypnotic, ethereal vibe, allowing the listener to fog out happily.

Skating on the Cusp was recorded over six months at Little’s home studio, using songs that Casson sketched out on piano and guitar. As for the exotic instrumentation on the record, he says it comes “from the interaction of me, Brent, and Shannon—really just improvisation in the studio. Once you’ve got the basic track, that’s when the fun begins, because then you can color it.”

But how do they know when to stop coloring? “We had eight tracks,” Casson deadpans. “Now we’re up to 16, but we won’t need any more than that.” Hines adds that to get the maximum out of their eight tracks, they would usually put more than one instrument on each, playing together at the same time and “putting the pressure on.” The band doesn’t see any need to change this method, given the vivid results, but if Skating on the Cusp got enough attention to land them on a “real” label, Shannon thinks that “it would be great if somebody liked it enough to give us a budget. And it would be nice to have someone keep up with marketing.”

Right now, the task of selling The Cheeksters’ music falls to Shannon and her insistent Southern drawl, which provides a sharp contrast to Mark’s lilting British accent. And while Shannon pushes the album and lands gigs for the band—like their appearance Tuesday at 12th and Porter, opening for Shalini—she manages business at Cafe 123, where Mark waits tables. It’s a far cry from Cool Brittania and Swingin’ London. But when the couple gets homesick, they pack their gear and head over to Brent Little’s, to recreate the sounds of another time and place.

—Noel Murray

Platters that matter

New this week in record stores:

Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man (American/Columbia) The Man in Black cuts another stark collection of neo-standards—yes, including the Neil Diamond title tune.

Dash Crofts, Today (Nuance) The former Seals & Crofts cofounder releases a solo album full of the tinkly electric piano and smooth sax work you’d expect from an MOR softie, but integrated into a slightly eccentric, inventive mini-orchestral mix reminiscent of The Beach Boys. Lite, maybe, but never innocuous.

Tony Iommi, Iommi (Divine Recordings/Priority) With all respect to Randy Rhoads, this is the dude who most deserves to stand at Ozzy’s side. We can only speculate on what former Black Sabbath ax-man Iommi has unleashed this time around.

Limp Bizkit, Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water (Interscope) Intermittent provocateur, company man, Napster shill, and occasional porn star Fred Durst leads his crazily successful Floridian rap-rock combo through their third set of aggressive but largely stingless anthems of rebellion.

Mark Olson & the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers, My Own Jo Ellen (HighTone) Olson, a founding member of the Jayhawks, leads this rootsy, homespun, invitingly laid-back outfit with his wife, singer-songwriter Victoria Williams; they’re both performing Monday at the Belcourt.

Red Snapper, Our Aim Is to Satisfy Red Snapper (Matador) Mixing film-noir jazz with a breakbeat sensibility, the mysterious Red Snapper return with their second Matador release.

Superdrag, In The Valley of Dying Stars (Arena Rock) The best Knoxville export since Peyton Manning release their long-awaited new pure-pop collection.

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