The Ugly Organ (Deluxe Edition)
by Chad Jewett
Cursive’s The Ugly Organ came at the tail-end of a remarkable run of releases for Saddle Creek Records. Beginning with Cursive’s own nervy, sharp Domestica, and including the fish-out-of-water emo-pop of Rilo Kiley’s The Execution of All Things, the paranoid futurism of The Faint’s Danse Macabre, and the respective claustrophobic arts-and-crafts charm and biblical maximalism of Bright Eyes’ Fevers & Mirrors and Lifted (all overseen by in-house producer Mike Mogis), the half-decade running from 1999 to 2004 remains more or less unprecedented in indie rock, approached only by the late 80s End on End-to-Repeater hit-streak of Dischord Records and Merge’s mid-2000s resurgence. But those five years were also exceptional for how they demarcated the outer horizons and inner obsessions of the Saddle Creek roster, a small but extraordinarily inventive farm system of artists who pitched in on each other’s albums and seemingly committed to friendly competition with gusto.
Conor Oberst famously took a moment on Lifted to name-check Black Out, the finest album from Cursive frontman Tim Kasher’s The Good Life, admitting that “Yeah, it’s better than good”. It was easy to sense the carefree, team-first camaraderie in that line, but there was also an apparent hunger there — especially on an album as overtly ambitious as Lifted. This was a group of musicians who persistently lent a hand on eachothers’ records (rare was the golden-era Saddle Creek LP that didn’t feature a member of The Faint, Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley, Neva Dinova, etc…), but who also seemed dead-set on pushing the alt-country-via-post-hardcore aesthetic of Saddle Creek forward, one milemarker at a time. The Ugly Organ would end up being the last great product of that insular, homemade world. Just a year-or-so later, Bright Eyes would operate from — and produce albums about — New York City; Rilo Kiley would release their magnum opus through Warner Bros; The Faint would set out on their own after their 2004 masterpiece, Wet From Birth. Cursive, who had turned to Conor Oberst, The Faint, and Jenny Lewis for assists on The Ugly Organ would largely keep to themselves for 2006’s criminally underrated Happy Hollow.
But first there was The Ugly Organ. Released in March of 2003 and receiving a handsome and nicely expanded reissue through Saddle Creek this month, the LP is a concept album, one that marries various layers, motifs, and cultural references to a darkly funny exploration of the band’s already-cemented taste for solipsism, post-modernist irony, and caustic satire. On one level an expressionistic horror story, on another a baroque re-writing of Brothers Grimm fairy tales, and finally a trenchant self-critique of Cursive’s own seeming tendency to mine personal drama for artistic gold, The Ugly Organ is dense and at times willfully ugly, pairing discordant, saw-toothed cello and needling guitar to equally unpleasant questions about the self-fulfilling prophecy of pop music’s obsession with broken hearts and tragic loves.
One might even hear The Ugly Organ as the (dis)enchanted, storybook blowback from 2000’s Domestica, an album which charted the difficult marriage and eventual divorce of Cursive frontman Tim Kasher. That album was a breakthrough, one of Saddle Creek’s biggest hits and the release that gave Cursive new life and a stronger sense of direction after an initial breakup at the end of the 90s. Managing to wed the barbed angularity of Fugazi and Drive Like Jehu to the bruised tunefulness of Merge stalwarts like Superchunk and The Magnetic Fields (Kasher wasn’t kidding when he compared his band to Fugazi and “Chapel Hill around the early 90s” on “Sink To The Beat”), Domestica is one of the essential albums of emo’s golden age. But like those albums, Domestica begs troubling questions about gender politics and interpersonal narratives reduced to monologues. The Ugly Organ seems to answer those questions mainly by swiftly turning to the guilty remainders of Domestica. The latter album is seemingly devoted to figuring out the visceral aftermath of its predecessor. As the female lead on the jagged, warping “Butcher the Song” asserts: “So rub it in with your dumb lyrics / Yeah, that’s the time and place to wring out your bullshit /And each album I’ll get shit on a little more”. And it’s likely telling that Kasher’s narrator doesn’t offer much of a defense: “I’m writing songs to entertain / But these people they just want pain / They want to hear my deepest sins / The songs from the ugly organ.”
That notion – of emotional warfare as commerce – is similarly explored throughout the album, and ends up being one of the more insightful points Kasher makes on The Ugly Organ. It’s not just that Cursive might be given pause by the way success has followed a one-way conversation about relationships and interpersonal strife; it’s that they’re also profiting from it. Hence we get “Some Red-Handed Sleight of Hand” and “Art Is Hard”, the album’s still-ineffable opening movement, a riotously combustible two-part hardcore burst (lent Jaws-theme drama by Gretta Cohn’s thrumming cello) that remains one of Cursive’s signature creations. On “Red-Handed” Kasher acidly snears, “It’s no use to keep a secret, everything I hide ends up in lyrics / So read on, accuse me when you’re done / If it sounds like I did you wrong,” yet on “Art Is Hard” Kasher muses “Well, here we go again / The art of acting weak / Fall in love to fail / To boost your CD sales”, and later: “You gotta’ sink to swim / Immerse yourself in rejection / Regurgitate some sorry tale / About a boy who sells his love affairs”. One might read irony into all of that: Kasher and his band sarcastically rejecting criticism that would presume a pretty foul confluence of capitalism and confessionalism. Yet the album is nevertheless having that conversation, and it remains a fascinating one, making Domestica and The Ugly Organ compelling companion pieces and some of the most committed explorations of the stakes of this kind of songwriting.
Elsewhere, the record remains singular for its frequently subtle touch, even as its nightmare imagery reaches for excess and then some. “The Recluse” drafts Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis for a femme fatale narrative that uses spider-and-the-fly imagery to render emotional need and confusion. Yet for all of the dense miserablism in the lyrics the song floats by atop Gretta Cohn’s elliptical cello, a tasteful smattering of sleigh bells and jangling guitars, and a rubbery, expertly carved groove via drummer Clint Schnase and bassist Matt Maginn. “Sierra” and “Driftwood: A Fairy Tale” range the farthest from the central metaphor of “The Ugly Organ” (referring to both the human heart and the album’s own musical emoting), the former an ode to a child of divorce, the latter an extended re-write of Pinocchio. Neither are a perfect fit, and both feel a bit out of place amongst the album’s otherwise tightly-drawn concept (though the picaresque vibe of the Pinocchio story is a bit closer to the album’s blend of noir and Gothicism), but each features the band at their reflexive best, especially “Driftwood,” which airily moves with Matt Maginn’s spry bass and frequent open spaces left for Cohn’s poignant strings.
One finds the record’s other extreme in all the moments where The Ugly Organ is most drastic and most sharply committed to expressionist outbursts. “Harold Weathervein” builds and builds with an anxious tell-tale heart of Hitchcock strings (DUN-DUN-DUN) and an off-putting, panting breath until the whole thing skitters into a chaotic post-hardcore caterwaul. Kasher, ever a master of unconventional hooks, matches an unexpectedly catchy melody to that strident triplet (“In his head / It’s like the weather, In his head”), the whole thing ending up a real-time object lesson in tension-and-release. “Bloody Murderer” begins with an unnerving sing-song of a guitar riff that eventually blooms into a broad, ringing swell, a lush mid-tempo ballad that is constantly stopping and starting, Kasher variably whispering and yelping, Cohn’s cello sighing and slashing in oblique pauses and sudden changes. Again there’s a hook that shouldn’t be a hook (“Bloody murder / Oh oh oooooh oh”), again the song chews the scenery, as does so much of the LP. Cohn, who debuted with Cursive on 2001’s flawless Burst and Bloom EP (a short album that similarly reflected back on Cursive’s own process, narrative hallmarks, and dark sense of humor), is frequently the star of the album, able to lend certain songs a stirring beauty (“Herald! Frankenstein”) as she punctuates the serrated tension of others (“Butcher the Song”).
Ultimately, The Ugly Organ is a monumentally fraught album, one that swings moodily between exuberant punk rock (“Some Red Handed Sleight of Hand”) and ruminative dirges (“Butcher the Song”), stomach-achey atonal sheets and wistful major key escapism. All of that pivoting, see-saw poignancy is captured on “A Gentleman Caller”, likely Cursive’s signature achievement. The song begins with the flinty, diagonal attack of Unwound or Drive Like Jehu, a steely sideways bite accented with strings and horns, and reflecting the album at its most unnervingly disturbed as the narrator recounts a partner’s infidelity. The song’s verse is a slithering, refracted thing, the surface beneath Kasher’s melody a rat’s nest of guitar noise, atonal mini-riffs, chattering bass, and near-random drum fills. When the song leans into a chorus it all collects back into one pounding jab, then falls apart again into clashing tinsel. The first half of “A Gentelman Caller” finds Cursive perfecting two of The Ugly Organ’s most distinct ideas: a forceful and collected wallop and a barely-contained sizzling chaos.
And then there’s a sudden calm that lifts into stirring transcendence. All of the caustic blame that sets “A Gentleman Caller” into frenetic motion (lines like “He loves his forbidden fruit / And as it dribbles down his chin” remain a challenge) is replaced by a moving empathy: “Who told you love was fleeting? Sometimes men can be so misleading / To take what they need from you / Whatever you need to make you feel like you can move on behind the wheel / The sunrise is just over that hill / The worst is over.” The melody is sweet and delivered with a hush earnestness that Kasher, at his best, has deployed with a filmmaker’s instinct for the moment. Beneath that a gathering major key lilt works its way forward. The change reminds one of the final movement of Fantasia, from the nightmare Gothicism of “Night On Bald Mountain” to the dulcet hopefulness of “Ave Maria” (in fact, The Ugly Organ frequently appears influenced by the emotional architecture of classic Disney soundtracks). Gretta Cohn’s cello draws pretty, minimalist lines on the song’s horizon; Clint Schnase’s beat gently builds, urgent yet free of the album’s signature panic. The song closes with that cello, slowly winding down and fading to black, to be picked up later with the album’s stirring finale, “Staying Alive”, which will build on the finale of “A Gentleman Caller” while swirling around a spartan central mantra: “I’ve decided to tonight I’m staying alive”, a last-minute glimpse of optimism on album of near-absolute bleakness. Yet the album’s reputation is essentially sealed by the emotional triptych of “A Gentleman Caller”, a song that spans the stark ranges of The Ugly Organ, from its most poisonous bile to its most affecting stoicism, in just over three minutes.
The expanded reissue of The Ugly Organ comes with eight bonus tracks released and recorded during the album’s two-year gestation and sourced from album-single B-Sides and the 2002 Eastern Youth split 8 Teeth To Eat You. Largely, these additions work to underline the careful editing that went into the cinematic surrealism of the album proper. Even if an unusual amount of The Ugly Organ is actually taken up by mood-setting ambiance and sculpted noise, it’s still hard to imagine tinkering with its careful balance. “Nonsense”, which playfully skewers Tim Kasher’s unconventional sense of melody, might match the ironic self-reference of “Art Is Hard”, but also seems to strike a self-fulfilling prophecy in exploring its own emptiness. It’s a tough task to model goofy, empty-calorie sing-songs without ending up making one. “Excerpts from Various Notes Strewn Around the Bedroom of April Connolly, Feb 24, 1997” features a killer melody and Gretta Cohn’s best effort at replacing Dischord-style hardcore guitars with cello, but makes better sense outside of The Ugly Organ song-cycle. Elsewhere, “Once” trades on the same bilious interrogations as “A Gentleman Caller” without that song’s eleventh-hour reprieve, leaving it compelling in its art-punk sharpness but supplemental to the storyline of the album proper. The haunting, jittery “Sinner’s Serenade” might be the only real candidate for post-facto inclusion, a long, slow-burner that works dots of total silence and sudden slabs of noise into its off-kilter groove. Ultimately, as was the case with the extras accompanying Polyvinyl’s reissue of American Football, Saddle Creek has given us a thoughtful and exhaustive look at the era of a classic album while also keeping that album whole. 2014 has given us a chance to revisit breakthrough records from post-hardcore legends like American Football, Unwound, The White Octave, and The Jazz June. So perhaps it makes sense to close out the year with one last archival project, one that stands at the very end of that mini-movement of breakthroughs, and which now feels like both a final tour-de-force and a punk rock island unto itself.