Reviews

Mama, I'm Swollen

3/10/09 | Aversion.com | www.aversion.com
Indie rock is growing up. The kids who once ruined their hearing cultivating cheap-beer hangovers to loud, irritating rock acts have grown up, got good jobs and brought the scene into the suburbs with them. Instead of Braid and Pabst Blue Ribbon in a warehouse show, they're shelling out big bucks for Fleet Foxes and cab sauv in a recently renovated fixed-seat theater in the recently gentrified part of town. Indie rock's all Burt Bacharach, string orchestration, Joan Baez and a whole lot of other things your parents would also like. A whole lot.

Cursive's Tim Kasher is growing up, too, but not at all in the same way as the indie underground. Although he has occasion to scratch the singer/songwriter itch in The Good Life, Cursive, Kasher's main vehicle is anything but a part of the buttoned-down world of grown-up indie rock. Its latest, this year's Mama, I'm Swollen (review) (Saddle Creek), takes Cursive back to the world of harrowing post-hardcore in which it spent most of its 14-year career. Singer/guitarist Kasher joins guitarist Matt Maginn, bassist Ted Stevens and brand-new drummer Cornbread Compton and leads the band back in the breach with a classic example of Midwestern post-hardcore: Kasher and Maginn's guitars come to loggerheads and collide violently one minute, then team up to sneak a hint of a melody in through the back door. Compton and Stevens hold down the back end, underscoring the guitarists' licks with drop-forged rhythms rooted in rock, not the twist-and-turn, tempo-shifting nonsense that frequently derails post-hardcore acts. If the indie rock scene that begat Cursive and its Saddle Creek Records contemporaries is getting slow and soft in its old age, Cursive discovered the fountain of youth. Mama, I'm Swollen is the opposite of folk-pop serenity, and, frankly, that's just how Kasher likes it.

"The last article I read about (the underground getting softer), it kind of encouraged me to play louder," he sheepishly admits. "I think that would be the natural progression that we'd want to go. If there was a trend, we'd prefer to go in the other direction."

If that sounds as if Cursive's acting the reactionary 17-year-old and being contrary for the sake of rebelling, so be it. Of course, it's hard to write off Kasher and company as just another of naught-naughty-loud-loud rockers once you immerse yourself in Mama, I'm Swollen. Although the album's arrangements are assertive and sometimes confrontational, Kasher delves into one of the smartest concept albums this side of the millennium: The album's central character struggles against the dual pulls of irresponsibility and adulthood hemmed in by those rules. He strikes out on a hedonistic quest for a libertine's freedom, only to realize that he shrugged off a lot of the comforts of stability that come at the price of respectability. It's a tale of a rock'n'roller's perpetual adolescence, a nod toward Peter Pan's lost boys, the morality play of Pinocchio's Donkey Island (which Kasher alludes to in "Donkeys") and all your friends' regrets after selling the drum kit or guitar to settle down and become an upright citizen.

Prog-rock concept pieces about fairytale love triangles alone don't make you an adult, or does playing an acoustic guitar and polishing those vocal harmonies. Maturing is a lot more complicated, and, surprise to all you indie snobs, Cursive's spent a lot of time struggling with the idea instead of playing at it.

Kasher's unflinching catalog of the mechanics of a quarter-life crisis should come as no surprise to anyone who's kept up with the band over the years. Founded in the nascent Saddle Creek scene in 1995 as his friends were getting Bright Eyes and The Faint off the ground, Kasher led Cursive through a couple albums, paid for by the Saddle Creek label, before petering out in 1997, when he briefly hanged up the mantle of rocker to give married life a try. It didn't take at all. While Kasher's life fell apart, he regrouped the band, got back into the practice space and started venting his frustrations. The result was 2000's Domestica (review) (Saddle Creek), a semi-autobiographical concept piece about -- what else? -- a dude going through a divorce. The effort's stark post-hardcore/emo-core guitars and sometimes uncomfortably self-revelatory lyrics immediately transcended the band's previous two records, establishing it as a major creative engine in the punk underground.

Cursive - Noise AnnoysDomestica established the band's modus operandi, with Kasher's intricately plotted lyrics and violently angular guitar kept the band's punk quotient high; an eye for extended themes made concept albums -- usually verboten in the punk underground -- an integral part of Cursive's oftentimes heady lyrics. A string of thematically self-contained albums followed: The Burst and Bloom EP (review) (2001, Saddle Creek) grapples with music as art and popular culture with a particularly self-aware, meta lyrical slant; The Ugly Organ (2003, Saddle Creek) is a pulpy tale of a keyboardist embroiled in the seamy world of after-hours vice and its role as inspiration; 2006's Happy Hollow (review) (Saddle Creek) takes on the choking hypocrisies and stifling Middle America-expectations of the Bush era.

"Some records definitely start with a concept. They haven't all," Kasher reflects. "This last record, as example, we started it, and definitely didn't feel like we had to tie anything to it or a concept, but then about halfway through, it kind of becomes exposed what I'm writing about. The temptation is to finish that. I like to finish these albums with them being a more cohesive collection of thoughts instead of a lot of random ones.

"The first few batches of songs are just written about whatever comes to mind," he continues. "What, as far as it coming more conceptualized throughout overall, then the second half of the songwriting is directly affected by the first half. Basically, I get caught up in whatever the theme is, and I want to finish the theme, so I kind of round out the album about that."

At the risk of getting a little too Freudian, it shouldn't be too tough to make the assumption that the weight of the adult world was weighing heavily on Kasher's mind as he developed Mama, I'm Swollen. Although his in crowd of Omaha-based musicians is still taking to the road and playing shows like they're in their early 20s, the 34-year-old Kasher's edging up on the point when maturity starts to creep into one's life. Cursive might not be settling down too soon, but, as the equally heavy concepts and music prove on Mama, it's not going to be carousing in the sun at Warped Tour or living it up like a gang of college students on spring break anymore.

The mature life's already taken its toll on the band: With Compton stepping behind the kit, this year's album is the first one not to feature drummer Clint Schnase on the drum stool. Schnase left shortly before Cursive began work on the new album, swapping his rock'n'roll lifestyle for -- you guessed it -- a family-building one.

"We had a pretty damn good run with him, but some of the better things in life caught him," Kasher says. "It as natural as a departure could be. He was like 'Hey, my wife and I have been planning on having a kid for a while and we're ready to do it.' It's not like they were pregnant already or anything like that. It was kind of like 'I should leave the band now because we are going to start working on a family.' He also felt like he had gotten all of his rowdiness out. He still loves playing music, but I think he did everything he wanted to do and it was time to move onto another chapter."

Punk largely moved onto another chapter than the one in which Cursive cut its teeth, too. Although plenty of idealistic and creative bands still take to the stage, the glory days when acts like Fugazi, The Refused, Jawbreaker and Sleater-Kinney took punk as serious business is largely history. These days, punk's usually just shorthand for vague and unfocused teenage rebellion. With saccharine love songs, potty humor and a new allegiance to cliché, modern punk bands are all too frequently cast off into the dustbins of throwaway teenage culture. It's all too easy to dismiss the genre as nothing more but bubblegum-sticky teenage shenanigans.

Cursive - Noise AnnoysAnd dismiss it, the world sure has. While hipsters cast a few nods toward the punk community's best and brightest -- the indie world's been vainly trying to claim Ted Leo and The Thermals as its own for years now -- punk's become a scarlet letter to many music fans. Between the glut of questionable bands and indie's new, lighter sophisticated side, it's no wonder many potential fans turn up their nose at the mere mention of Cursive and its punk roots. Considering the state of much of modern punk -- or the misconstrued modern version of it -- Kasher isn't too surprised that so many potential listeners have it out for three-chord rock.

"I was flipping through an Alternative Press magazine and saw a kid with a Blink 182 tattoo on his knuckles," he puzzles. "It's like 'Wow. That's where we are now.' That's crazy. This kid grew up. When he was young, he was listening to Blink 182 and that was punk. That's not punk. That's mainstream pop music. It's not that I'm bashing on Blink 182, but that's not punk. Or maybe it is. Maybe that's the reason why punk should be bashed.

"I'm being too way too safe to not disrespect Blink 182, because I really have nothing against them," he backpedals. "Like I said, they would be the first to recognize that they are doing a mainstream thing. That's probably why it's pop punk instead of punk rock. I think that punk rock has the right, after majors skewered it in the '90s, it has the right to have a bad name, some aspects of it."

Close to the top of bitch list filed against punk by the world at large is the style's increasingly juvenile topics. With breakups and teenage matters of the heart pop-punk's primary focus, the style is a little shallow for anyone with an ear for themes that stretch our minds. Cursive isn't falling into that trap. With yet another introspective and uncomfortable jaunt through the thirtysomething mind, Cursive crafts the sort of album for which you have to brace yourself -- which is almost as much of an obstacle as easily accessible pop tunes at times.

"If that is an obstacle, then it's one that I completely embrace," Kasher says. "That would be the shittiest thing for some producer or someone to say 'You're getting a little too real for me.' I wish that I wouldn't be so difficult for anyone to listen to, but at the same time, that's good.

"I think (Cursive albums) can be draining. They're draining to me. When I come across some older songs sometimes, I guess they're all from my experiences, they surprise me sometimes. I'm like 'What the hell is wrong with me?' I can't believe I was going through this at the time."

So where does Cursive sit, exactly? It's too cerebral and visceral to be easily accepted by the pop-punk generation, and its guitars pack way too much bite for indie fans' so-call cultured sensibilities. It's a remnant of the past, or, if we're lucky, a vision of punk's future. It's mature and introspective. It's rebellious and noisy like a young punk act. It's a ball of contradictions, and, really, that's what's made the band so interesting for so long.

"The thing is, we kind of fell between the cracks, which is what we wanted to do, in a way," Kasher says. "I guess that's a lie. You want to be heard and you want to be accepted everywhere."
Mama, I'm Swollen

Mama, I'm Swollen

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