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The anti-pop element in rock 'n' roll began in the late '60s with groups like Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Henry Cow and continued right through the '90s with the likes of Nick Cave and Nine Inch Nails. All were compelled to make rock more noisy and intricate rather than catchy or sensual. The results have been mixed at best — far too many albums that appeal to true believers but feel distant, even alienating, to everyone else.
But there have always been grand exceptions like Sonic Youth, who began abrasive but discovered their own way to go pop and still be themselves. With enough effort, they forged hooks, melodies, even beauty in their own idiom. Following a similar path, two bands coming from very different directions have recently put out their most appealing records, without losing their cerebral side.
The New York trio Battles consists of guitarist and keyboardist Ian Williams, bassist and guitarist Dave Konopka, and drummer John Stanier. It's a sort of super-group, though only Stanier's previous band, Helmet, had a national profile. Battles originally featured vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Ty Braxton, but his return to solo projects has been good for the group, because its second album, Gloss Drop, is far less cluttered and fussy than its debut. The first single, "Ice Cream," is almost friendly, in a bristly way.
Gloss Drop includes several guest vocalists, but they're afterthoughts, textures among the textures, and not the bearers of messages or stories. But even without catchphrases, you quickly come to recognize every track on the album when you hear it again — and you want to replay it. Although Battles' members are full of current ideas, they offer one of the oldest fascinations of rock 'n' roll: You don't quite know what it is, but you like it.
Chicago's experimental rock band Cheer-Accident has been around for 30 years and releasing albums for 20, with many changes in personnel and styles. But the key constant is founding member Thymme Jones, who is a keyboardist, a singer and, most important, a drummer. From the start, Cheer-Accident had the advantages of commitment to a firm rhythm attack — and, as the band name indicates, a slightly eye-rolling sense of humor.
That didn't help much in the early years of abrasive sound as an end in itself, abrupt starts and stops, and rote Nirvana imitations. Cheer-Accident got better at cerebral elaborations and eventually turned out 22-minute workouts that were marvels of coherence but no more emotionally engaging than the previous squawks and blats. But all along, a current was rising in the band's material — harmonies, melodies, performed with increasing affection and skill. On the latest album, No Ifs, Ands or Dogs, Cheer-Accident can make an otherwise ominous line, "I'll be the one to drag you down," sound almost sweet.
Cheer-Accident includes lots of the group's characteristic puns and racket, including "Drug You Down," a kind of satire of the harmonies in "Drag You Down." However, No If, Ands or Dogs indulges in pleasure more than any previous album by the group. I'd hoped "Cynical Girl" might be a cover of the Marshall Crenshaw tune. It's not, but it's still pretty.
Among the bands Cheer-Accident recalls, it's not as intellectually tight as Henry Cow nor as casually poetic as Soft Machine. But even if you don't know who those bands are, Cheer-Accident is worth deliberate investigation.