The full title of Cherry Choke’s second album is A Night in the Arms of Venus Leads to a Lifetime on Mercury, and it’s a saying taken from the fact that mercury used to be used as a treatment for syphilis. Venus, then, is a prostitute giving you the disease. The vaguely evocative sexuality and antiqueness of the line perfectly suits the sophomore outing from the British threesome, who made their debut on Elektrohasch Schallplatten with a self-titled in 2009 (review here). A Night in the Arms of Venus, for short, collects nine vinyl-minded retro rockers the swing of which will be welcome to anyone on Graveyard’s trail, but Cherry Choke are rawer, more garage-sounding, injecting a Stooges wiriness into heavy blues grooves and ‘60s proto-psych pop. Fronted by guitarist/vocalist Mat Bethancourt (of Josiah, The Kings of Frog Island and Dexter Jones Circus Orchestra), they are a classically-directed power trio and the songs follow purposefully simple structures, Dan Lockton’s drums coming on with a casual uptempo swagger and open feel that reminds some of Blue Cheer’s early bombast, but on the whole, these songs are more melodically aware than were the San Franciscan progenitors of the genre. Bethancourt made his bones as a fuzz rocker in Josiah, but if that’s to be the object of search here, it’s found more on Gregg Hunt’s bass, which pushes the uptempo “Winchester Geese” over the line of psych rock and heavy psych rock. The guitars are cleaner in a classic combo-amp fashion and well-suited to the mod vibe of the tracks.
And the songs, for their part, are built on catchy choruses and steady execution. They feel natural and retro but not posturing or chic for the sake of being chic. A Night in the Arms of Venus varies in mood and tempo but keeps a consistent aesthetic nonetheless, even as the later “Silver Crossed My Mind” veers into backwards guitar and mellotron psychedelia, departing from the straightforward 45rpm-single-ready songwriting of “The Day She Came to Play” or the Hunt-penned “Blue Mass,” which directly precedes following side B opener and album highlight “Evol,” on which Bethancourt layers acoustic and electric guitar to ecstatic effect. It is the guitarist’s construction acumen all over A Night in the Arms of Venus, but Hunt and Lockton make for more than an enriching presence in the rhythm section, fueling a freakout of their own to contrast Bethancourt’s calmer approach on “I Need Not Know Redemption” or playing off the Who-style grandiosity of opener “Crying out Loud” with solo-worthy runs and fills later in the song. Hunt’s contributions make some of these cuts stand out, and that’s as much the case with “Crying out Loud” as it is with the more extended closer “Splinters,” which tops seven minutes and finds Bethancourt answering back with a bit of fuzzy warmth of his own while Lockton foreshadows the jam to come as he keeps time on his toms amid sub-swirl channel-pans in the guitar leads and a forward focus that seems impossible given the seemingly unhinged aesthetic in which Cherry Choke are working.
They do, it’s worth noting, bring “Splinters” back around to its chorus after ranging into a jam that probably wasn’t as improvised as it sounds, Bethancourt eventually layering in his guitar for a statelier feeling and Lockton’s constant kick drum reminding listeners that yes, there’s still a song happening here, until the quick rest lets Hunt move the track into its finale. One gets the impression that seeing Cherry Choke play “Splinters” on any given night could be a different experience based on whatever they feel like doing in that stretch that particular evening, and that goes for side A closer “Domino” as well, which is the longest cut on A Night in the Arms of Venus at nine-minutes flat and delves even further into jamming that’s more psych in mood than tonal heft. A pivotal difference between the two songs lies in Lockton’s performance, which keeps the same snare beat even as Bethancourt layers wah tracks on top of each other and Hunt deftly runs up and down his fretboard on fills that only end when the guitars drop out and he moves in to set the stage for the jam’s next movement. The drums remain constant when Bethancourt reintroduces the final verse and chorus, and, fittingly, they end the track on their own. That sort of adaptability on the part of Lockton proves a tremendous strength to Cherry Choke on the whole, as only two songs earlier on “The Day She Came to Play,” it felt like any given measure was likely to find him somewhere else on his toms and snare, no less suited to the mood of the song, which is hazier and set in part by watery effects on Bethancourt’s vocals and the solid groove of Hunt’s bass.
One could easily read A Night in the Arms of Venus as a performance album, driven by the individual strengths of its players in their instrumental roles, but to look at it that way undercuts the value of Cherry Choke’s chemistry and particularly of Bethancourt’s songwriting, which varies in approach but not quality as the record plays out. Whether it’s the subtly more spaced-out second half or the hook-laden first, Cherry Choke are expanding their reach not through conscious genre transcending, but through organically maturing as a band. As a result, a song like “I Need Not Know Redemption” is able to so effectively balance its moodier atmosphere with its uptempo push. It’s Hunt, Bethancourt and Lockton being tight, but it’s also what they’re doing with that tightness that makes A Night in the Arms of Venus the engaging listen it is. Its breadth is deceptive, and at first these might just sound like decent garage rocking tracks, but there’s a complexity of mood at work below the surface that, coupled with the band’s natural penchant for structure and creative drive, enriches the experience and proves that just because a song sounds easy doesn’t mean it actually is. Recommended for anyone who wants a little sass in their rock and roll.
Tags: Cherry Choke, Elektrohasch, Leicester, UK