"Welcome one and welcome all to our small town," Tim Kasher sings atop of a cacophony of squalling horns, crashing cymbals and bubbling synths to introduce us to Cursive's fifth full-length album, Happy Hollow. Staying true to the band's need for constant reinvention, Happy Hollow isn't The Ugly Organ Pt. II, and despite the departure of cellist Gretta Cohn, it certainly doesn't revisit the guitar-angst of Domestica. Instead, the band's latest disc is a horn-driven pop record that stops, starts and stutters itself through 14 tracks chronicling the intersecting lives of the citizens of Happy Hollow.
Both musically and lyrically, Happy Hollow is Cursive's most ambitious album to date, and for the most part, the gamble pays off. While it may seem a little too, say, E Street Band to have horns dripping all over an indie-rock record, Nate Walcott's expert arrangements mesh perfectly with the Kasher's disjointed songwriting making for a welcome addition to the group's sound. While there are the occasional missteps (the demented romp, "Bad Science"), songs like "Retreat!" and "Bad Sects" (get it?) wouldn't sound out of place on a Good Life disc-which further blurs the line between Kasher's two projects.
However, while Kasher is best known for drowning his girl troubles in pint glasses, this time around he's traded the Bukowski shtick for a more lofty subject: God. Kasher isn't shy about his skepticism of Catholicism ("There was a big bang once/but it doesn't jive with Adam and Eve," he sings on "Big Bang"), but the real brilliance lies in the way he constructs fictional characters-like the conflicted gay priest Father Cole or the pregnant teenager Jeannine-to illustrate his views of organized religion, instead of relying on the same dogmatic devices he so stridently opposes here.
But even if you can't fully grasp the disc's existential subject matter, Happy Hollow is still a pleasure on the ears. While the horns, accordions and organs are nice textural touches, the core of the group-Kasher, bassist Matt Maginn, drummer Clint Schnase and guitarist Ted Stevens-have never sounded better. In fact, the album's diversity is a testament to the band's talent as they effortlessly alternate between revved-up rockers ("Flag And Family) and midtempo tracks ("Dorothy Dreams Of Tornados") with equal aplomb.
Ultimately, Kasher is probably too smart for his own good, and much of Happy Hollow will be lost on most listeners. (Hell, even we don't understand the tender ballad "Into The Fold," which recounts a philosophical discussion between a lamb and a shepherd.) But that's exactly the point: Like all great works of art, Happy Hollow's ambiguities are also part of its charm, and with this disc, Cursive haven't just redefined their sound-they've transcended it. (SADDLE CREEK; saddle-creek.com)
LP / CD / MP3
LP / CD / MP3
LP / Deluxe LP / CD / MP3
LP / MP3