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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

I know this is wrong 'cause we're told this is wrong

Like their last record, Cursive's new record, Happy Hollow, keeps growing on me and all for the better. I'll say that if you liked The Ugly Organ, you're going to enjoy this one too, but I don't mean to imply that this is a retread. Cursive has successfully managed to make great records in the last few years, but none of this happened overnight.

My introduction to the band was via their third album, Domestica. Feeling like this was an angry Fugazi clone, I passed on it and sent it to the "crap box" at KTCU. Well, my friend and fellow DJ Steve retrieved it from the box, along with their Burst and Bloom EP, and just so happened to have them out when I was once over at his house. I don't know why, but I wanted to listen to Domestica again, in addition to Burst and Bloom. Even though I still think Domestica sounds like an angry Fugazi clone, I think it's great.

The deal about Domestica is that the lyrics were all coming from the stance of someone going through a divorce. At that time, when it came to lyrics about breaking up, most post-hardcore/emo bands would sing about breaking up with a girlfriend. Dealing with a marriage falling apart is way more intense (at least in my mind) and to be honest, I couldn't really get into a record all about this. Listening to the record now, I still feel a lot of pain coming from principal singer/guitarist Tim Kasher. Sometimes hearing this kind of pain is a great comforter, but other times, it's not.

Instead of divulging more in the post-divorce angst, Kasher went with a sharp satirical angle, in addition to a more optimistic one, on The Ugly Organ. Poking fun at himself along with taking the view of other perspectives, I quickly realized that Kasher was going much further than most other lyricists in the genre. Musically, The Ugly Organ took risks and didn't come across as a train wreck. After appearing on the Burst and Bloom EP and the split-EP with Eastern Youth, the presence of cellist Gretta Cohn was even more pronounced on the record. Along with appearances by keyboards, saxophone and a choir, Cursive was painting with a lot more colors here. Plus, the songs that they were creating were much more poppier, disjointed and defined.

Here's where matters get a little weird though: as maligned by what mainstream critics and hipsters viewed as emo at the time, I didn't understand why they were only praising Cursive. I'm guessing that since a lot of what is perceived as emo is more for the "teens and teens only" crowd, here was a band that wasn't going down that route. Of course there are plenty of other bands that don't go down that route, but Cursive seemed hand-picked and singled-out. I can't knock the band because they were creating some of their best stuff, but still, why just Cursive?

Anyway, after Kasher did a third record with his more-than-a-side-project the Good Life, Cursive was supposedly done again (they had briefly broken up a few years ago). Gretta Cohn left the band and the word was that the band was not replacing her. They were working on new songs, but I didn't expect Happy Hollow to be great. A band's magic can wither away after so many records, line-up shifts and so on. Yet when I got to review the record for Punk Planet, I was pretty darn excited. Now having "lived" with the record for about a month, I think it's safe to say this is one of best records I've heard all year.

For some odd reason, but unlike Domestica, The Ugly Organ and the Good Life's Album of the Year, I didn't pick up on Happy Hollow's lyrics right away. After reading a review on Punknews.org and listening to Jim and Greg's review on Sound Opinions, I realized how incredible this stuff was. Dealing with religion, closed-minded attitudes, hollow presentations and American dreams, there is a common thread here, just like the ones found on the aforementioned records. Yet are you seeing the band peddling graphic novels or short films to sell the albums' "storylines"? Nope -- Cursive lets you use your imagination without buffoonish pretension.

Musically, Happy Hollow covers more untapped terrain first heard on The Ugly Organ. With a small horn section on many of the songs, this makes for some cool augmentation. On paper, a horn section with Cursive may not work, but just like having a cello in the band, this somehow works incredibly well. Similar to The Ugly Organ, there is some great poppy stuff and sharply dissonant stuff here. But again, this doesn't sound like a trip back to the same well for the same kind of water.

So what does a Cursive mean in the big picture? Well, for me, this is what post-hardcore's modern evolution really sounds like. In addition to Red Animal War, the pAper chAse, the Forecast and a number of bands on Polyvinyl, Dischord and Jade Tree, you can tell that these bands have listened to the essential records, but they aren't stuck in the world of 1995. Of course the mass-marketed, overly-commercialized banal robot pop thought of as mall emo for "the kids" is very hit and miss, but that's the easy stuff. Lifetime, the Promise Ring and Sunny Day Real Estate weren't being shoved down your throat in 1995 -- you had to search this stuff out. Somehow I'm now realizing that with modern records by bands like Cursive, this is a very similar hunt. This is the kind of hunt that comes with a great reward. I should think about that the next time I decide to read another puff piece on Panic! At the Disco . . .

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