It’s like a chorus of angels singing songs only devils could write. Ashli Cheshire, lead singer of local mood-rock quartet Cheshi, has one of the best voices you’ll hear, period. Not just in Frederick. Not just in Maryland. Shoot. Not even just in this silly, little universe. It’s a tone unavoidable — poised, strong, confident, spectacular. It trembles deep while exploding on a dime whenever called upon to do so. It demands your attention. It deserves your attention.
And so does her band’s debut self-titled five-song EP. Recorded expertly with local studio head Kenny Eaton, “Cheshi” is the sound of a band fully comfortable, fully realized. Rarely do records feel so complete, but here, each track paints a picture with a presence both imperative and inspired. Evan Braswell’s drums sound like they will pound until they hit the bottom of the Earth while Matt Jachowski’s bass rounds out his rhythm partner’s power with a skin-tight low end that refuses to sit idle. Meanwhile, Trevor Williams’ guitar grants the production a unique sense of atmosphere that wouldn’t exist without his taste and skill.
The combination of all those things couldn’t be on any better display than the first and last tracks here, “Thank You” and “Stones.” The former is the most accessible the band gets, kicking in right away with all four parts detonating into your ears. As the verses rollercoaster themselves up and down, complete with Braswell’s rim shots and a tasty backing bass guitar groove, Cheshire takes command with the lower register of her voice bringing demons to life. It’s the closest thing to a straight rock-pop song Cheshi offers, and boy does it slay.
“Stones” then creeps up on you like a snake in the night. With the first 2-plus minutes spotlighting the bandleader’s delightfully ominous tendencies, the song ultimately boils over into a volcano of rock, the punch packing more muscle than a bodybuilding competition. Providing the proceedings with even more intensity is the way the flame smolders as the final minute of ambiance fades to black. The essence of the song ultimately adds up to be one hell of a storm’s eye.
Yet even when the group isn’t concerned with its reckless abandon, its members still find ways to be interesting. “Sentimental” is filled with beauty and … well … sentimentality. Pacing slow, Cheshire’s voice floats like a butterfly each time it decides not to sting like a bee. Armed with little more than an electric guitar, occasional drum stabs and unexpectedly fruitful vocal harmonies, it moves as much as it waves. Sounding so full in delicacy is a trick hard to accomplish and with this, the band proves it’s a top-level magician.
Single “Bug Dance” also spotlights dynamism in spades. Braswell’s tom-toms booming to a devious march, it rises and falls on command, exploding with each chorus while falling in step throughout each verse. Perhaps the song with the harshest, most palpable vibe, it’s the sonic equivalent of woods you could only see in horror movies. Cheshire’s voice already has the ability to haunt your most vivid dreams, but surrounding it with matching inauspicious textures takes the proceedings to an entirely new menacing level.
And then there’s “You Don’t Know Safe.” Playing off the band’s signature formula, it erupts as the hook announces itself with the crack of a snare drum. Driving forward with an uptempo feel and just the right amount of aggression, it eventually calms down with pretty guitars filling out the background painting Cheshire’s vocal prowess. As she proclaims “I’ll never get used to this,” you know a tornado is circulating with intensity as the singer’s voice quivers with anticipation. It’s the perfect segue into a twister of emotion.
Emotion is key to the Cheshi formula. Not only does Cheshire possess a truly stunning singing voice, but her delivery takes her gifts to heights impossible to teach. Each note is felt, every utterance hangs on a different heartstring attached to a different passion. It’s not just easy to appreciate the talent; it’s downright impossible to not believe in it. As a result, “Cheshi” is an essential short collection of songs from a band whose best days are most likely still in front of them.
It’s a scary prospect — almost as scary as devils harmonizing with angels.
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***