Here’s a quick concept – The McGurk effect is a perceptual phenomenon that creates an illusion where one sound is paired with the visual component of another sound, leading to the perception of a third sound (thanks Wikipedia). It would be like seeing a dog meow but hearing a quack. The point is, sometimes what you expect doesn’t come from where you expect.
Take Brooklyn four-piece Pom Pom Squad. To some, they may have a lowkey grunge affect, but perform delicate queerpop. To others, it’s a pop image that blasts out fast-paced garage rock. In reality, their debut album, ‘Death Of A Cheerleader’ manages to encompass both of these, and so much more.
Fronted by Mia Berrin, surely soon to be an idol for her easy charisma and outstanding voice, ‘Death Of A Cheerleader’ follows on from their 2019 EP ‘OW’ using the same tightrope walk of being frankly open and deliciously sneering.
Opening with the Mr Sandman-esque ‘Soundcheck’ before jumping straight into ‘Head Cheerleader’, the combination sets the tone nicely, with the former acting as a delicate repose before an onslaught of distortion and noise from the latter. The leap from one to the other is a little jarring, however, and could’ve benefited with ‘Head Cheerleader’ being a little further into the track listing to maintain a continuous flow. Throughout the record, Berrin addresses fractious relationships, the subversion of expectations, and self-identity – hence the album title.
Single ‘Crying’ has a cinematic feel, with sweeps of soaring strings within the intro before breaking into fuzzy verses. Reflecting intimate feelings of disdain for herself and admission that depression isn’t fixed by one good song, it’s Berrin’s first real show of her vocal range. Hitting long, striding high notes before dropping back down to a lower register in the grungier verses, there’s both a power and restraint to her voice, wielded with uncanny precision. Followed by ‘Second That’, an acoustic track that shows how painfully vulnerable Berrin can be, it’s a track that hits anyone who’s lost love right in the tear ducts.
Highly influenced by ’60s pop culture, their cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’ 1968 hit ‘Crimson And Clover’ remains faithful to the original with Berrin whispering along. ‘Be Good’ maintains that ’60s cinematic feel, reusing the xylophone hook from ‘Soundcheck’ to create a dreamscape that somehow manages to create images of a Gene Kelly dance straight into the brain. Similarly, ‘Forever’ similarly uses a ’60s aesthetic with a slow, pounding beat. rousing string sections and lyrical story. Comparisons to Lana Del Rey are easy (and, equally, lazy) but do feel appropriate, with Berrin able to replicate the rise and falls within Del Rey’s voice with ease as the instrumentation creates space for Berrin to soar effortlessly above it.
‘Death Of A Cheerleader’ isn’t entirely a reflection of a bygone era, and tracks like ‘Shame Reactions’ and ‘Lux’ are straight up garage rock, with big licks of delicious fuzz, heavy drums and plenty of distortion. Proof of Berrin’s versatility, as comfortable spitting poison as much as delivering heartfelt odes, it’s a testament that neither seem out of place or uncomfortable, instead feeling naturally progressive.
Perhaps most interestingly is ‘Red With Love’. Illuminati Hotties’ Sarah Tudzin produced this album, and you can feel her fingertips all over this track – gentle rhythms largely led by jangling guitars, bouncing vocals and lyrics lifted straight from a poetry anthology, it could fit on either bands back catalogue.
As debut albums go, ‘Death Of A Cheerleader’ is pretty magical. To be able to touch on so many varying sounds, genres and styles, yet never feeling overproduced or overworked, it’s a testament to the cohesion within the band. Themes are revisited countlessly and manage to feel diverse yet familiar, largely down to Berrin’s outstanding performances. If dreamy pop rock is your vibe, this will resonate perfectly.