LIVE REVIEW: Cursive – Live in Cambridge (3.14.15)
by Chad Jewett
(Photoset coming soon!)
2015 finds Saddle Creek Records at a fascinating crossroads. The label was once the homegrown product of one of independent music’s most unique, captivating, and self-assured scenes – that of turn-of-the-millennium Omaha, Nebraska – a middle American hotbed that would yield Lullaby For The Working Class, Bright Eyes, The Faint, Criteria, The Good Life, and of course Cursive, all within a span of a decade. In it’s bustling late 90s/early 2000s years Saddle Creek could pivot from the paranoid electro-punk of The Faint to the Superchunk-informed emo of Sorry About Dresden to the orchestral novella folk of Fevers and Mirrors and still rightly claim its signature sound. Or more accurately, its signature sentiment: teamwork and art in a small town.
The label now approaches its twenty-fifth anniversary (including its years as Lumberjack Records) as a clearinghouse for broad indie rock that doesn’t quite have the same specificity and congenial rootedness that made albums like Lifted and The Execution Of All Things seem revelatory for their era. When Jenny Lewis sang about moving to Omaha to “work and exploit the booming music scene and humility”, she wasn’t just having tongue-in-cheek fun at the way we understand “cynical” L.A. and the “earnest” Midwest. She was punctuating precisely what made Saddle Creek so important to so many – the sense that there was a unique, pastoral, keenly felt and smartly shaped world that, in its suburban brand of intimacy and familiarity, could stand in for anyone’s hometown. Any given Saddle Creek release might feature half of Cursive or The Faint or Bright Eyes in featured roles (the fact that Bright Eyes and Lullaby member Mike Mogis produced most of Saddle Creek’s golden era output plays no small part in the intangible symmetry of these records). In fact, most of them did. Lifted and Cursive’s severely underrated Happy Hollow (for instance) were breakthroughs because they understood the balance between the charm and bonhomie of artists using the closeness of their cul-de-sacs to their advantage and the often conservative, even reactionary, nature of exactly these kinds of towns. That blend of wonder and critique is singular in American indie rock.
Some version of this crossed my mind as Tim Kasher, whose band Cursive (along with Azure Ray and the now always-evanescent Bright Eyes) remain the final active figures from Saddle Creek’s golden era, paused late in their Ugly Organ-focused set to thank the audience at Cambridge’s Sinclair Theater. Kasher seems to still muse over what exactly it is about The Ugly Organ that has made it a modern classic and one of the defining artistic statements of its era, but the forty-year-old singer-songwriter graciously noted how glad he and the band were to be sharing the unique experience the audience was having with the album, which recently turned eleven years old (the strangely asymmetrical anniversary year seems just right for Cursive’s brand of obliqueness and wry humor) and received a deluxe reissue. Whatever it was that made people adore The Ugly Organ, Kasher said, he was happy Cursive could bring us back there.
The moment – especially touching in its sweetness and sincerity given Kasher’s general taste for the ironic and the acerbic – came as both a moving goodbye and a reassurance. The last year or so has seen reunions by many of the bands that were doing their best work right around (or just before) the time of The Ugly Organ. And for each triumphant and warmly genial return like that of The Blood Brothers to a rapt, delighted audience in Brooklyn, there are tours like Mineral’s still-extant reunion, which seemed at times exhausted and even a bit dissatisfied with the entire arrangement, wearied with playing decades-old songs whose florid emotionalism and adolescent worldviews have aged differently for nostalgic fans versus active artists. You begin to wonder how healthy our expectations are for these artists who are constantly reminded (if not beleaguered) by requests for long-past albums as they still work to make the next one. It becomes some version of the guilt pang you get when eating fast food: is this good for any of us? Certainly it’s no good for the person making the burger.
Yet Kasher dispelled a lot of that with the clear joy that he seemed to find in working through the deceivingly complex material that makes up The Ugly Organ, the fun he has in inhabiting the cast of scoundrels, grotesques, narcissists, and fools that populate the album. To think of Tim Kasher (along with guitarist Ted Stevens and bassist Matt Maginn) searching his way through this album night by night to figure out why we showed up and seemed so damn glad to hear it again is to be charmed by the angle Cursive has taken on this contemporary reunion rush – an angle as oblique as the music Cursive still makes, and still makes quite well. One hopes very sincerely that what Kasher says is true – that they’re finding some form of the happiness they’re well aware they’re giving.
Cursive’s performance was preceded by half-hour sets from Texas’s The Nighty Nite and the ascendant Philadelphia melodic punk quartet Beach Slang. The Night Nite, a duo consisting of guitarist-singer John Congleton and keyboardist/sound-sculptor Jason Garner was at its best when at its most abstract, when the band’s blend of post-post-hardcore bite and Mountain Goats anti-folk (Congelton’s lyrics were defined by the MFA gothic of Flannery O’Connor, all haunted religions and weird medicine) made its deconstructive intentions most obvious. At times one could dwell on the queasy effect of Congelton’s octave-dropped vocal effects and detuned guitar and simply see a band missing its target. But whenever The Nighty Nite made their elliptical, destabilizing approach to whittled indie-rock clear, they remained thought-provoking.
Beach Slang were joyously explosive and infectious in their punk-for-life optimism. Delivering a set culled mostly from their excellent 2014 EPs Cheap Thrills On A Dead End Street and Who Would Ever Want Anything So Broken, the band leaned into their buoyantly melodic punk with extra muscle and velocity, lending songs like set-highlight “Filthy Luck” an added sense of dashingly radiant energy. Beach Slang’s grasp of the songs was tight and confident enough to be positively athletic, the band’s drummer finding spaces for added mini-fills that popped beneath the quartet’s two guitars like condensed firecrackers. James Snyder, whose crisp, raspy voice remains ideal for the romance and warmth of his lyrics, was just as charismatic between songs — rhapsodizing with welcome positivity on the very real connective power of punk rock — as he was during songs, as he and bassist Ed McNulty threw themselves into the fevered motion of the band’s accelerated emo with Muppet-like physicality and joy for motion. The band’s bottlerocket exuberance and unflagging earnestness made for an interesting match with Cursive, something like Walt Whitman opening up for Baudelaire.
But the night truly belonged to the massive, fairytale drama of The Ugly Organ. Opening (likely with tongue planted firmly in cheek) with the playfully Dadaist Organ-extra “Nonsense” and crashing through Happy Hollow-highlight “Big Bang” (long a live staple for the band), Kasher knowingly joked about the palpable anticipation in the room as the ambient noise of “The Ugly Organist” led the band – filled out by a cellist and the band’s longtime touring keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist – into the sawing album-opener “Some Red-Handed Sleight of Hand”, followed immediately by the booming orchestral hardcore of “Art Is Hard” and the baroque stateliness of “The Recluse”, filled out nicely by the band’s cellist, doing solid work subbing in for Jenny Lewis’s original vocal. Between songs, Kasher seemed to inhabit some version of the various cads and snake oil salesmen that scamper throughout The Ugly Organ, at times leering with faux mania at the crowd, at others squinting with the weird intensity of Robert Shaw, or simply grinning and nodding with the canny confidence of a hack politician, as if to say “I know. We’re that good”. At his most infectiously strange, Kasher lived in some terrain between 1970s Steve Martin and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. While Maginn and Stevens (whose work on the songs was excellent, especially Stevens who had the unenviable task of singing most the album’s most intimate and subtle parts) were dressed in somber, funereal colors, Kasher was decked out in classing patterns of red and purple, some grown-up version of the ne’er do wells that traipse through Disney’s Pinocchio.
The Ugly Organ became a performance piece, both for the ways in which Kasher joyfully chewed the scenery by playacting all the album’s damaged egos, but also for the nimble yet powerful touch that the band brought to its difficult material. Unlike nearly all punk or indie albums, you can imagine The Ugly Organ as sheet music, as repertory material, as an entirely different kind of classic. Seeing Cursive make its way through the entire LP live is to constantly be reminded that “Oh, they have to pull off this part. And that part. And that other part.” Invariably they did (think of the time-lagged hop-scotching of “Bloody Murderer” for instance), while also adding increased Jaws-theme tension and skittering Fugazi wiriness to set-highlight “Harold Weathervein” (sung beautifully by Stevens), lending an even more expansive weightiness to “Sierra”, overcoming the already-ceiling-high expectations for fan-favorite “A Gentleman Caller” by biting further into the song’s feral hardcore sinew. Matt Maginn’s bass was a sharp, barbed marvel throughout, adding serrated intensity whenever Kasher and Stevens were forced to focus on less dense, more pointillist guitar parts.
The entire performance was defined by a dramatist’s sense of the moment, for making something entirely from the charged air. That might have been part of what made the experience different — joyous instead of depressing, triumphant instead of requisite. Cursive were challenging themselves not to top The Ugly Organ, but to make it into something else; a delirious stage-show, an interactive experimental drama, a post-modern opera. While dotted with material from past albums (all of which range from good to terrific) the quintet played The Ugly Organ in order, closing with the bruised hopefulness of “Staying Alive”, sung with moving grace by Stevens and eventually swelling into its expected gale of noise (throughout which keyboardist Patrick Newbery did dazzling work layering digital abstraction from a bank of synthesizers) before fading elegantly back into that final refrain: “Do do do do do do do do / The worst is over”. I hardly need to tell you that much of the audience stayed to warm themselves in that looping bit of melody, to sing as a group experiencing precisely the kind of lovely fellow-feeling that James Snyder had in mind barely sixty minutes earlier. Cursive borrowed The Ugly Organ for an hour, made it into something both wholly new and poignantly familiar, then handed it right back to us, Kasher and Stevens pausing only to salute their thanks before leaving us to that winding chorus and our own sense of wonder.