Reviews

The Ugly Organ

Author: Kelefa Sanneh
03/23/2003 | New York Times | www.nytimes.com | Feature
On a recent Saturday night, Tim Kasher and his band, Cursive, were performing a triumphant homecoming concert here, celebrating the release of the group's marvelous fourth album, "The Ugly Organ." More than 1,100 people were packed into the Sokol Auditorium, including a number of rock 'n' roll tourists. Fans had driven in from Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, even New Jersey, all eager to see a concert in the city that has perhaps the most vital underground rock scene in the country.

But Cursive isn't the kind of band that goes in for simple boosterism, even on a night like this. When it came time for Mr. Kasher to address the cheering locals and pilgrims, he said, "This has never been my favorite place to play," and the cheering ebbed a little. Then he struck a note of measured optimism: "It would be awesome if this could become my favorite place to play." And then the group dove into "Art Is Hard," an anthem against anthems. As the band — the cellist Gretta Cohn, the guitarist Ted Stevens, the bassist Matt Maginn and the drummer Clint Schnase — sawed away at an acute riff, Mr. Kasher screamed, "Cut it out! Your self-inflicted pain/ Is getting too routine/ The crowds are catching on/ To the self-inflicted song."

Right now, the bands of Omaha — Cursive, Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos, the Faint, Neva Dinova and others, along with the affiliated Los Angeles band Rilo Kiley — are enjoying (or, perhaps, enduring) widespread success.

Why Omaha? It helps that the city is centrally located, which makes it a convenient stop for touring bands. It helps, too, that living is cheap. And it helps, most of all, that the musicians go back a long way. (Many of them attended Creighton Preparatory School together, and they all seem to know each other's families.) Finally, though, the Omaha scene is a happy accident — it's what happens when a bunch of great songwriters and musicians find themselves in the same place at the same time.

The city's most celebrated act is Bright Eyes, a country-tinged folk-punk collective of indeterminate size, led by the 23-year-old singer-songwriter Conor Oberst. (He's also the lead screamer in Desaparecidos.) Last Aug. 13, Bright Eyes released a brilliant, audacious album called "Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground" (Saddle Creek), which marked a point of no return: Mr. Oberst was hailed (plausibly) as a genius, celebrated (prematurely) as the voice of a generation and described (accurately) as a cult heartthrob — after he performs, there's usually a cluster of young, female fans waiting by the stage door.

Many Omaha bands have been associated with emo, the earnest post-punk genre, so the city has picked up a derisive nickname: Emo-ha. The greatest strength of the Omaha scene, however, isn't its sincerity but its skepticism, and its penchant for self-criticism. One Bright Eyes lyric goes, "For a song, I was bought/ Now I lie when I talk/ With a careful eye on the cue cards." Instead of pledging never to sell out, these bands are more likely to claim that they already have, and to wonder what it all means. Indeed, there's probably no other way the bands could survive the acclaim and success they have been earning; by any measure, the bands and the city are in the middle of an extraordinary musical run.

Saturday's concert was the start of a two-month national tour, and this summer Cursive will play Europe and Japan. (The band comes to the Bowery Ballroom on Wednesday.) On Saturday night, Cursive's opening act was Desaparecidos, a punk quintet that released its exhilarating debut album, "Read Music/Speak Spanish" (Saddle Creek), last year. And the Faint, an Omaha new-wave band, recently toured the country with No Doubt; a remix CD, with contributions from Paul Oakenfold and other big-name producers, is due out on April 1.

Members of Rilo Kiley, from Los Angeles, befriended Mike Mogis, who produces many of the Omaha bands, during a tour; he produced the group's sharp, sugary second album, "The Execution of All Things," which was released on Saddle Creek, the Omaha record label run by Robb Nansel. Neva Dinova is one of the few Omaha bands that doesn't record for Saddle Creek; the group issued an elegiac self-titled album last year, through Crank!, a Santa Monica, Calif., label.

If you want to know where all of Omaha's great albums are made, you have to travel an hour southwest. The so-called "Omaha sound" is actually the Lincoln sound, since that's where Mr. Mogis, the producer, runs Presto!, his recording studio. (Mr. Mogis owns it with his brother, A. J., who's also a producer.) On Friday afternoon, the day before the Cursive show, Mr. Mogis was holed up in his studio with Blake Sennet, the guitarist and part-time singer for Rilo Kiley. They were producing tracks for Mr. Sennet's forthcoming solo album, and Mr. Mogis was trying to make up his mind: Did it sound better if you could hear Mr. Sennet breathe in before he sang?

You can hear this nitpicking approach on the albums Mr. Mogis produces, which sound both homemade and meticulous. It's true that parts of "Lifted" were recorded in a bar, but don't think Mr. Mogis didn't obsess over every drunken scream.

Every scene needs someone like Mr. Mogis, and far too few have one: he's a relentless perfectionist, a tough taskmaster and an inspired producer.

"We're trying to introduce new instruments into indie-rock," he said, and the last album by Bright Eyes (which counts Mr. Mogis as a core member) included French horn, tympani, glockenspiel, bassoon and lots of steel guitar. Two and a half years ago, Mr. Mogis moved Presto! into a comfortably sized storefront near Lincoln's main drag, which meant he had to start charging his friends to record their bands.

As Mr. Mogis tells it, the process of recording "The Ugly Organ" was particularly grueling. Cursive had just added Ms. Cohn to its lineup, so Mr. Mogis had to figure out how to make her cello fit alongside the guitars. As it happened, the addition of Ms. Cohn pushed the band to make the best album of its career: her jagged lines provide a tuneful counterpart to the crashing guitars and Mr. Kasher's dreamy-screamy vocals. "The Ugly Organ" is a concept album about the contradictory demands of sex and song, and it also includes the band's first ballad, "The Recluse," in which Mr. Kasher reduces self-loathing to a simple sigh: "I'm not that desperate/ Oh no. Oh God. I am."

At 28, Mr. Kasher is an Omaha veteran. Cursive has been releasing albums since 1996, and before that, Mr. Kasher played with the post-punk band Slowdown Virginia. He grew up with Mr. Oberst's older brother, Matt, and Mr. Oberst said Mr. Kasher was something of a mentor: "He taught me how to play rock guitar, and we never stopped being bro's."

In retrospect, it seems inevitable that Mr. Oberst would become Omaha's first break-out star; right from the start, he was an indie-rock prodigy. Barely a teenager, he formed a band called Commander Venus (which also included Mr. Nansel), touring the country and ending up, improbably enough, on Wind-Up Records — the same label that hit paydirt with Creed.

Around the same time, he started making cassettes of his acoustic songs, and eventually he let Mr. Nansel compile a Bright Eyes CD, called "A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997," which included music he made when he was only 15. Since then, he has put out a series of Bright Eyes albums and singles, each more verbose (and better produced) than the last; unlike most child prodigies, he's still getting better, a decade after he began.

A few hours before he was scheduled to take the stage with Desparecidos, Mr. Oberst could be found down the street from Sokol Auditorium, draining a glass of red wine in a hushed, empty bar called the Bohemian Café. Mr. Oberst has developed a reputation for purity: he's the sweet boy who sings sad songs in a fragile voice. "You become the songs," he said, and it was clear he thought the whole process was a bit fraudulent, although inevitable.

In recognition of this fraudulence, Mr. Oberst gives nearly every song a twist, and often two. First comes the dispiriting realization that he's not telling the truth. And then comes the heady revelation that it doesn't matter. "Lifted" includes a song called "Laura Laurent," in which a boy sings about his lover's sister: "She asked me to care for you, that is what she did / And I went and betrayed her." But at a recent concert, he switched the line around, as a way of reminding his listeners not to believe him: "I asked her to care for you, yes I did/ And she went and betrayed you."

Mr. Oberst is not quite a celebrity in Omaha (he still gets carded at some of the local bars), and yet he is inching closer to national renown. "Lifted" is the best-selling album in Saddle Creek history, with 70,000 copies sold, and Mr. Oberst now owns his own house in Omaha. He still records almost exclusively for Saddle Creek, but these days his songs are published by Sony. And it now seems he's in the process of adopting a second hometown, spending more and more time with friends in New York. "I love Omaha, and I love my friends," he said. "But for the time being I just feel more aware when I'm in New York."

SADDLE CREEK is growing, too: the label recently signed a distribution deal with the Alternative Distribution Alliance, part of the Warner Music Group. Next month, the label will issue its 50th release, a compilation called "Saddle Creek 50" that includes one old and new song from each of its acts. (The two-CD set also includes 45 brief home movies, originally posted on the label's Web site.) The new Bright Eyes song is "One Foot in Front of the Other," a grand, tangled ballad about walking away from love and war and home. After five minutes of prevarication, Mr. Oberst reaches a disquieting conclusion: "I'm leaving, but I don't know where to."

Later that Saturday, he led Desaparecidos through a thrilling, raucous set, railing against money and the military and — in a song called "Greater Omaha" — urban sprawl. Then a thick curtain closed across the huge auditorium stage, and when it opened again, Cursive was playing. Soon, all of Greater Omaha seemed to be shouting along with Mr. Kasher's anti-rallying cries.

Mr. Kasher seemed gratified by the response, but he probably would have been even happier to see the scene that unfolded a few hours before, in a convenience store on the next block. A customer noticed the line of shabbily dressed kids stretching down the street and around the corner, and asked what was going on. "Local band," came the gruff reply.

"Polka band?"

"No," the cashier explained. "Local band — from Omaha."

The customer considered this, and considered the crowd; considered, perhaps, his hometown. And then he responded, with an inscrutable mixture of delight, derision and confusion: "Ha!"
The Ugly Organ

The Ugly Organ

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