Saddle Creek | Cursive | Reviews


The Ugly Organ

Author: Ethan Dougherty
03/18/2003 | | | Album Review
I can't pinpoint the moment when I stopped considering Saddle Creek a true "indie" label; perhaps it was when a fifteen-year-old girl IMed me from her screen name BrightEyes5. However, although Bright Eyes might have brought the label into the lethargic eyes of scenesters across the country, Omaha's very own Cursive is leaps, bounds, and a well-placed flourish of cello ahead of them in terms of pure ability, and their latest album The Ugly Organ has what it takes to make me forget how much I dislike the Bright Eyes cult.

Since its inception in 1995, Cursive has been known for making solid, if at times unspectacular, rock music. In 2001 they released the EP Burst and Bloom, which showcased the abilities of the band's newest member, cellist Gretta Cohn. While the addition of strings to solid rock is often disastrous, Cohn manages to keep pace with the rest of the band. The result is varied on The Ugly Organ, ranging from highly orchestral arrangements in the fairy tale ballad "Driftwood" to subtle melodic reinforcement over the walls of guitar provided by vocalist Tim Kasher and Ted Stevens on the more explosive tracks like "Some Red Handed slight of Hand." The result sounds kind of like Belle and Sebastian's bully big brother.

Only on the slow groove of "The Recluse" does Cohn's cello falter; this song is so obviously derivative of the later work of the beloved late 80's strings-and-rock band Camper Van Beethoven that it wouldn't seem at all out of place on that bands final album, Key Lime Pie. This concern seems trivial, though, when viewed against the rest of the album.

If for no other reason, you're going to want to buy this album so you can sound smart when people start sticking it on their albums-of-the-year lists in December. The lyrics of this "concept album" seem to be mostly aimed at the music industry, although many are so oblique that after dozens of listenings I still can't unravel them. The instrumentation, cello notwithstanding, is mostly standard hard indie fare, although I'm going to have to take the band's word for it that Matt Maginn was actually playing bass because it's inaudible in the mix on most tracks.

Even though a few songs fall short of brilliance, notably "The Recluse" and the trite polemic against infidelity "A Gentleman Caller," in which Kasher apparently thought it was a good idea to sing "Who told you love was fleeting? Sometimes men can be so misleading,"(Sorry, Tim, it wasn't a great idea) certain songs shine so brightly that they alone are worth the price of admission.

"Driftwood" is a three minute window into what a band looks like as it really hits its stride. Kasher's voice modulates perfectly, yelling without screaming, Maginn's bass trudges along like a steel-mill worker in an art museum, the guitars alternately swirl and crunch, and Cohn deftly weaves in and out of all of this sound while adding a soft and beautiful touch to the emotion of the lyrics. All of this could easily degenerate into a train wreck, but Cursive is just tight enough to pull it off.

"Some Red Handed Slight of Hand," the album's first true song, clocks in at under two minutes, but is one of the most intense rides I've taken in a while. The next track, "Art is Hard," continues in the same vein, as Kasher screams and wails "You gotta recreate your misery."

The closer, though, is what slingshots The Ugly Organ from "very good" to "fuckin' amazing, dude, you gotta buy this" status. "Staying Alive" is a ten-minute post-punk epic, and every second is absolutely necessary. Over the course of the song, the drums devolve into what sounds like tribal music layered underneath what sounds like a delicate harmony of angels cooing "the worst is over," only to give way to the cello before eventually drifting off around the ten-minute mark.

It may sound hyperbolic, but I don't think I'm smart enough or equipped with the necessary writing abilities to do this song, or this album, justice. I've been procrastinating on reviewing this album because I didn't want to betray my stoic snobby music critic fašade, but The Ugly Organ is one of the best albums I've heard in the last year. Buy a copy for yourself, and one for that girl you've been trying to impress with your music tastes.

The Ugly Organ

The Ugly Organ

LP / CD / MP3