Saddle Creek | Cursive | Reviews


The Ugly Organ

08/26/2003 | | | Album Review
If Tim Kasher's lyrics are any true reflection of his actual life and thoughts (and one supposes that, to some degree, they must be), it's easy to surmise that the only thing he fears more than women is himself. Self-destructiveness and misogyny aside,The Ugly Organ purports to be a kind of concept album, but ends up to be quite another, though both outcomes are probably very intentional.

Intro "The Ugly Organ" suggests a creepy, carnival atmosphere, or perhaps the accompaniment to a bizarre Noseferatu knock-off, but the accompanying "stage directions" in the sleeve let us know that this is entrance music for our narrator. The lyrics of "Some Red Handed Sleight of Hand" seal our fates, as we realize we are definitely on a ride, and it's one that takes us up, down, and around one man's love affairs, artistic crises, and the place where those intersect. The song itself is so full-throttle engaging that we may not at first notice the bitter words Kasher and Ted Stevens shout at us, with cellist Gretta Cohn setting the song above its already stellar guitar work.

We get more of the same on the single "Art is Hard", the song starting off with ominous kick drum from Clint Schnase and threatening strings from Cohn. Things get very catchy here as the rhythms of the song alternate and a cool low-key bridge takes us to the all-out finish.

Songs like the uneven and musically shifty "The Butcher's Arm" tell this tale still more explicitly, with just a slight indication that the relationship depicted may have caused its author some personal shame. "The Recluse", with its chiming rhythmic guitars and sing-along chorus, is a keenly worded and intoxicating high point of the record, though perhaps a low point for its author, with lyrics like, "And I can hardly get myself out of her bed/For fear of never lying in this bed again/Oh Christ, I'm not that desperate am I?/Oh no, oh God, I am."

The depressingly charming "Driftwood" uses Pinocchio as its subject, comparing the wooden boy to the now familiar emotionally cold man in a very clever way. Here, the bass lines from Matt Maginn and the vocal melodies, as well as more work from Cohn make this a stand-out track.

Perhaps the weakest song on the record, "Bloody Murder" doesn't seem to fit in lyrically, and though the opening strings, vocal melodies and bells throughout are lovely, the song embarrasses a little with its melodramatic chorus. Similarly, "Sierra" seems musically vague, sonically distant, and somewhat out of place here, but may still win over the listener in the end with its pleas for a daughter lost to indecision, and a life of stable but dull happiness along with it.

Two songs on the record end with the refrain "the worst is over": in the musically schizophrenic "A Gentleman Caller", using the phrase is a calculated and deeply cynical cut at a woman who retaliates for her boyfriend's philandering, and in the album's beautiful though strangely eclectic and shoe-gazey closer "Staying Alive", the phrase is used in a more genuine and ultimately optimistic way, hinting at some burgeoning maturity arising from the ashes of a much-prolonged adolescence.

These days, it seems that all a record requires to be considered a "concept album" are some between-track musical stylings and some hints in the liner notes. While The Ugly Organ stays true to a theme, it has nothing to do with an organist or stage directions. The concept here is to allow a man to confess by hiding behind a character - but isn't that how it's always done? This record is raw, and this is the secret to both its beauty and ugliness. Allowing the kind of unchecked revelation of id and ego that the lyrics do here must be matched by equally daring and at times awkward musical efforts in order for the record to have longstanding merit. Thankfully, Cursive succeeds this time out, striking our major rock-inducing chords and minor heart-straining chords equally, and frequently in tandem. You may be seduced reluctantly by such an aggressive posture, but rest assured: on the inside, The Ugly Organ is an emotionally hungry endeavor, desperately longing to give. +
The Ugly Organ

The Ugly Organ

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