Saddle Creek | Cursive | Reviews


The Ugly Organ

Author: Brian Howe
06/01/2003 | The Crutch | | Album Review
Remember those Bugs Bunny cartoons where Bugs would get into a fracas with Elmer Fudd, manifesting as a whirling dust cloud of flailing limbs? Bugs would step out of the cloud and chuckle smugly until the dust cleared, revealing Elmer to be biting his own shin. Cursive has pulled a similar bait and switch with The Ugly Organ, which continues in the vein of the post-hardcore meta-music they initiated on The Burst and Bloom EP. The title track of that EP was the first indication that band leader Tim Kasher had some tricks up his sleeve; its wearily intoned lyrics sounded like a perfunctory press release: "They've got a new fan base / They've got integrity / They've got a DC sound / Shudder to Think; Fugazi / And Chapel Hill around the early nineties / This is the latest from Saddle Creek." Becoming the John Barth (meta-fiction pioneer, author of Lost in the Funhouse) of indie music is a shrewd move on Kasher's part, as it allows him to wear his heart on his sleeve while deftly sidestepping accusations of emo self-indulgence. While so many artists in the same genre stand swathed in a roil of their own passion and pain, on The Ugly Organ the "real" Kasher grins like a mad Svengali in the wings while his doppelganger pantomimes his pathos, jerking on invisible wires. All the while, the younger fans that associate Cursive with the emo scene sway in the front rows with tear-stained cheeks, biting their own metaphorical shins and, one could assume, missing the joke entirely.

Although in my opinion Cursive has yet to surpass the aesthetic heights of Domestica, The Ugly Organ is a fine addition to their catalog. The album's title refers literally to the organ-grinder keys that decorate it, and figuratively to the contents of the artist's heart, which Kasher deems doubly profane: once for the pain it encloses, and again for the self-pity and ingratitude the privileged W.A.S.P. artist seems to indulge when expressing that pain. Call it emo if you want, but Kasher's take is more sophisticated than the usual solipsistic, self-absorbed emo fare. Like Jets to Brazil's Blake Schwarzenbach (although the two use different tactics to justify their grousing: Schwarzenbach tempers his with positivity and thankfulness, while Kasher uses irony and formal gamesmanship to distance himself from his songs), Kasher recognizes that while his pain exists; it's a pain that he really has no right to lament, living as he and most of us do in a relatively privileged life. Thus, the pain of the broken heart yields to the pain of recognizing the frivolity of the broken heart, and the whole record oozes hurt like an infected boil. Essentially, instead of singing songs about emotional trauma, Kasher sings songs about singing songs about emotional trauma, and this theoretical distance allows him to access feelings he'd be unable to with a straight face and clear conscience otherwise. The music is also too complex, thick, dissonant and jerky for me to really identify it with emo, seeming more akin to the DC art-hardcore style Kasher mentions himself on "Burst and Bloom." The cello Cursive introduced on The Burst and Bloom EP fits more snugly into the arrangements than before, fleshing out their post-hardcore along with newly acquired vocal samples and that ugly, ugly organ.

The liner notes contain stage directions that further the feeling of postmodern artificiality Kasher seems intent on fostering, e.g. Enter Organist. Moves stage center in a grotesque costume. He gestures toward an imaginary audience. Once again, we find him singing about the tiresomeness of songwriting, i.e. on "Art is Hard": "Oh, a second verse! Well, color me fatigued. I'm hiding in the leaves in the CD jacket sleeves." Never have such coldly analytical lyrics been delivered with such wrenching melodrama, as Kasher forces his voice into tortured screams and upper register wails.

It's hard to believe that he isn't subtly goading his audience as well as chastising himself for his theatrics. The thick and forceful "Some Red Handed Sleight of Hand" rolls without a hitch into the creepy, minor key intro of "Art is Hard," a crashing anthem on which Kasher gives his penchant for self-flagellation its head: "Cut it out - your self-inflicted pain / Is getting too routine / The crowds are catching on / To the self-inflicted song." But are they? Two songs into the record, and the audience has already been called "imaginary," and Kasher's assertion that they're "catching on" seems extremely disingenuous. The immaculate pacing of The Ugly Organ becomes apparent with "The Recluse," a welcome breath of air after the claustrophobic density and intensity of the first two songs. Adorned with sleigh bells, a cold, sharp guitar phrase and Kasher's sultriest, breathiest vocals yet; it's the first song on the album where he steps down from the metaphorical wings and into the spotlight, earnestly singing, "I wake alone, in a woman's room I hardly know / I wake alone and pretend that I am finally home." Juxtaposed with the relentless winking and nudging of the first two songs, the sincerity is refreshing. "Butcher the Song" is dark, abrasive and seriously ugly, with its dissonant, plodding chords and spook-show vocals. Kasher gets in another dig on his credulous audience: "I'm writing songs to entertain / But these people . . . They just want pain / They want to hear my deepest sins / The songs from the ugly organ." The spacious chords of Pinocchio fable "Driftwood: A Fairy Tale" and the churning power of "A Gentlemen Caller" most resemble the style of Domestica, rather than the denser, harsher sound of the following albums. Especially salient is the swelling cello and vocal section at the end of "A Gentleman Caller," a perfect counterpoint to the violence of the first half of the song and containing this nugget of hope that will recur in the album's final track, "Staying Alive": "The worst is over." Also noteworthy is the starlight-bathed landscape of the elegiac "Sierra." This is another song that foregoes literary navel-gazing in favor of candid sentiment, told from the perspective of an estranged father: "I'm ready to settle down now / So get that man out of my bed / I want my daughter back now." When Kasher sings the name "Sierra," it strikes with the poignancy of the famous "Stella!" from A Streetcar Named Desire. It's worth noting, then, that two of the most affecting and forceful songs on the record find Kasher abandoning his defense mechanisms.

It's certainly interesting to watch the artist struggle with the process of creation, with what constitutes valid art, and The Ugly Organ handles the theme well enough. It also depletes it, and if Kasher doesn't manage to locate the inherent value in making music he's been searching for, I can't imagine how he'll be able to carry on. After all, as the postmodernists of the sixties and seventies found out the hard way, you can only attack the illusion of narrative for so long before there's nothing left to chip away, and something must be built instead of debunked: something requiring credulity, earnestness and faith in the redemptive powers of art.
The Ugly Organ

The Ugly Organ

LP / CD / MP3