Burst and Bloom
Back in 1999, Pitchfork reviewed an album called Emergency & I by the Dismemberment Plan. The review was positive. Alright, that's a bit of an understatement. You could have called it a rave. In fact, raves for the album were repeated in the news and features sections; several staff members even changed their names to "Emergency" or "I." For a short period the entire site closed down but for a banner page reading, "Buy Emergency & I by the Dismemberment Plan!" The same message was scrawled across highway off-ramps next to "Armenia Lives!" and "Clapton is God!" Even though they didn't know me back then, Pitchfork staff members would call in the middle of the night asking if I'd gotten the album yet. I hadn't. There was a hunger strike.
Eventually, I got the record. I listened to it a number of times and came to appreciate the band's unique take on rock. There was always something new happening, and the elements worked together to create stirring effects song after song. My friend who likes good music got it and loved it. Couldn't stop talking about it.
Yet I didn't really care for it. There was something too intellectual, too clean, too weird for its own sake. There was a song about getting an open invitation to everything and the singer going to a bunch of lame parties that depressed me. I didn't like the singer's metallic, ringing voice. So this is what the asterisk's about:
* This is a review by someone who didn't really care for Emergency & I, one of the greatest records-- no, one of the greatest phenomena ever, rivaling the Big Bang and the birth of Christ. Omaha, Nebraska's Cursive is used to getting 8.0's here, and perhaps they would again if someone of less sclerotic tastes had gotten hold of Burst and Bloom.
As with Emergency & I, I don't really get off on what I'm hearing, but I can appreciate this five-song EP, the follow-up to the widely lauded full-length Domestica. I know others will like this, and I have to attribute some of my dislike to my own taste, as opposed to this band's quality. I was of a mind to dog this record, but they kept jarring my hardened ears to listen with strong bursts of dissonant guitarwork, and athletic hits of band cohesion, rocking me. Cursive brings to mind elements of the aforementioned Plan, Archers of Loaf, At the Drive-In, and Refused, and the songs have their share of surprising moments. They can summon some great cacophony, though to my mind, they don't swing. Yes, swing. It's necessary. It don't mean a thing. When the fireworks die down and I become used to the new elements, the underlying structures aren't all that thrilling.
I think this may be "emo," though I've never been able to figure out what the hell emo is. Fugazi + Whining = Emo? What kind of music worth a damn isn't about emotion? Do they just replace political rage with a general sense of negativity? Is that emotion?
When Tim Kasher groans, "4/4 hip-hop and it don't stop," on the opener, "Sink to the Beat," I don't know what downbeat emotion he's going for, but it makes me embarrassed. The song goes on to detail the creation and marketing of this very song, which, with some nice alliteration, comes off as a well-written mistake-- another song about songwriting. Kasher warns us that, "Some melodies are like disease/ They can inflame your miseries/ They can infect your memories." This is the indie rock way of conveying that "sad songs say so much." It's not much of a message. Cursive almost redeem this song when the noise takes over, as one guitar hits like bricks while the other spears through in rapid regularity, like a sewing machine converted into a weapon. Kasher screams like the guy being assaulted by the bricks and needles, and bass player Matt Maguinn is particularly good at hard two-note hits, playing with more earthshaking presence than tone. Still, they should have ditched this number, as the rest of the disc is superior.
Kasher and Ted Stevens (of Lullaby for the Working Class) weave together subtle, tiptoeing guitar lines at the start of "The Great Decay," creating a sneaking, suspenseful sensation, an expectation that's realized in explosive mayhem. "All these ghost towns share a name," Kasher sings convincingly in an Eric Bachmann rasp. "Anywhere USA/ All these strangers look the same/ Day after day after day." This is the most driving number, my favorite.
An organ slithers in spookily to announce "Tall Tales, Telltales," only to fade into muted, evil circus music. Soon, the band's newest addition, band member Gretta Cohn, comes in on the cello, riding over drumrolls as the guitars play hypnotic Arabian figures. The whole band comes together in a large, surging, muddy chorus. The song swells and sinks intermittently, but without really going anywhere. Kasher sure can sing and scream, but he lacks warmth and humor.
"Mothership, Mothership Do You Read Me?" attempts interstellar communication through fast, fuzzed-out guitar riffs and long, haunting cello lines. There's a spooky little breakdown and more great screams, as well as a sci-fi theme of alienation. I don't think it has much to do with Parliament/Funkadelic, sadly. Soon, "Fairytales Tell Tales" (they like that wordplay!) kicks in with a fine sonic assault, the bass part looping around hugely, like a kimodo dragon performing somersaults. The drums almost skitter, locking in with the phased-out guitar to sound like an electric eggbeater jammed into a trash compactor. There's a hardcore flourish before it returns to the more plodding, typical Cursive groove.
And therein lies the ultimate problem facing Burst and Bloom: in these tales of jaded seduction, Cursive captures the sadness, but none of the wit or fun of life. They rock, but they don't bring the party. Sure, it may be hard for a song to be simultaneously sad and fun, but better songwriters accomplish both.
LP / CD / MP3
LP / CD / MP3
LP / CD / MP3