Reviews

The Ugly Organ

Author: Eric Holder
09/24/2003 | Flagpole | www.flagpole.com | Feature
Among the collective of musicians drawing attention from every record label that is looking for the next Seattle or Athens in Omaha, one band is challenging the stereotypes: Cursive.

"Omaha will never be like Athens," says frontman Tim Kasher. "It's a business city that lacks a lot of culture - Omaha is not Seattle or Athens."

That may be true, but one thing is for sure: Omaha-based Saddle Creek Records is to its scene what Sub Pop was to Seattle's more than 10 years ago. Saddle Creek is the driving force behind the proliferation of acts in Omaha, thanks in part to Kasher, who recalls, "We originally were Lumberjack Records, but found out later that name was already taken by a major. Lumberjack Distribution, [who] we knew nothing about."

That was back in the early '90s when Kasher and then a barely-teenaged Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos), Todd Baechle (The Faint) and Robb Nansel played in Commander Venus. Oberst says of Kasher, "He taught me how to play rock guitar, and we never stopped being bro's."

It was through Commander Venus that Athens got involved. Ghostmeat Record's Russ Hallauer put out one of Commander Venus' first releases ("Pay Per View") on Ghostmeat's (very rare and collectable) Apollo's Salvage compilation CD released in 1995. Ghostmeat and Saddle Creek later collaborated to release a Drip and Commander Venus split 7".

Since then, Athens and Omaha have continued relationships through Drip's Andy LeMaster's current project: Now It's Overhead with Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink of Azure Ray who themselves have migrated west to join the Saddle Creek Family for their third full-length.

About the same time Ghostmeat and Drip were refining the Saddle Creek connection, Kasher's other band Slowdown Virginia had gained a loyal following, only to call it quits soon thereafter. This lead to the formation of Cursive with Slowdown's bassist Matt Maginn, guitarist Steven Pedersen and drummer Clint Schnase in 1995.

As Cursive's sound grew, Kasher used a symphony to heighten his arsenal.



For the next three years, Cursive released two full-length albums, Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes (Crank!, 1997) and The Storm of Early Summer: Semantics of Song (Saddle Creek, 1998). Cursive disbanded after co-founding guitarist Steve Pedersen accepted an invitation to law school in North Carolina and Kasher moved to Portland with his wife.

Kasher, however, soon moved back to his hometown and enlisted his longtime friend Ted Stevens (Lullaby for the Working Class, Mayday) to help him resurrect Cursive, and by 2000 Kasher had divorced and then turned out his third full-length release, Domestica (Saddle Creek). It was the band's most well-received effort.

"Domestica was the last album I could have done with a four-piece - Matt and I really wanted to expand the sound," says Kasher. "[We] have been friends since we were 13 or 14... we bought our first guitar and bass together. His input is definitely a big part of our sounds evolution from concept on."

Kasher would like to use a symphony to bolster his musical arsenal, "but that would be hard to tour with," he laughs. So just a cello it was.

Gretta Cohn was recruited and the Cursive sound was further characterized, in some respects, by an even greater melancholy and by a new graceful melodic layer.

"Mike knew about Gretta from recording her with Bright Eyes," says Kasher, "and he suggested that we give her a try. She turned out to be a very natural fit - we don't tell her what to play; she's very independent."

Mike Mogis, often credited with creating the "Omaha Sound," is actually about 45 miles away in Lincoln, NE, where his Presto Studios are almost synonymous with Saddle Creek. "Mike and I have been working together since the beginning," Kasher adds. "Gretta was living in Brooklyn and we flew her down to work on [the 2001 EP] Burst & Bloom - it was a natural fit."

Cohn's cello infusion adds a layer of depth, and fills in some melodic gaps that Kasher's sometimes mathematical style ignored. "I'm fine with the math comparison," Kasher told me, "I think it's a fascinating and challenging style of music, I'm very impressed with the exercise of rewriting signatures, but none of that would be possible without the great drummer we have in Clint... he's amazing to work with."

One can almost hear an enthusiastic sense of purpose as Kasher talks about the growing sound of Cursive, but it is, in fact, the Omaha Sound that Cursive is separating from. Tritely tagged "emo" by writers everywhere, the Omaha Sound is as varied and complex as the "Athens Sound," and Kasher's penchant for conceptual albums and textures are giving him and his bandmates a sound all their own.

Cursive is at one moment rock and roll at its best, at the next moment a chaotic cacophony that turns on a dime with technical prowess, only to quickly retaliate with the tranquillity of Kasher's rhyme and reason. And that's the band's beauty. The resulting sound is refreshingly difficult to peg and fun to listen to as it stretches your heart and draws you in.

Kasher's organ playing, also introduced on Burst & Bloom, is a more prominent part of the Cursive sound, but that is by no means tempered. Cursive remains a dynamically loud band punctuated by Kasher's resolute vocals. "There's so much discrimination against louder music. I don't listen to much hard music, either, but I think there are emotions that people aren't hearing in their CD players - anger or really loud sorrow may be among them. All of us have that inside," Kasher says.

On the cusp of critical acclaim and creative momentum and only three days into their 2002 tour with Eastern Youth (with whom Cursive released a split disc called Eight Teeth To Eat You), Kasher suffered a collapsed lung and spent the next two weeks in a hospital in Utah. After major surgery and during his two-month recuperation, Kasher wrote what was to become one of the finest albums you'll hear all year: The Ugly Organ.

The Ugly Organ picks up where Burst & Bloom left off, giving listeners more atmosphere and depth - as if Kasher's vocals of anthemic urgency weren't enough. As a lyricist, Kasher predominantly draws upon his own self, creating a sea of relatable experiences.

"I'm writing songs to entertain/ But these people, they just want pain," Kasher exclaims on "Butcher the Song," making no secret of his discontent with what he perceives as the allure of his craft. Earlier, in the operetta "Art is Hard," he demands, "Cut it out/ Your self-inflicted pain is getting too routine/ The crowds are catching on to the self-inflicted song." Like labelmate Oberst, mining self-loathing has proved profitable - unless, of course, Kasher's singing about Oberst himself.

But through it all Kasher and company, as they dig on themselves, don't come across as preachy; rather, they transcend the expected and easily move their sound from jagged dual guitars to something airier and perhaps portentous of things to come, as evidenced on pieces like "Driftwood: A Fairy Tale" and "The Recluse."

Kasher also maintains his other project The Good Life; it's a gathering house for songs he's been writing for the last 12 years that weren't right for Cursive. He says the material is "not very resolute... [it's mostly] searching for answers in a very broad sense."

Kasher may never find the answer, but in searching, his band has released its best album yet, and remains Omaha's most ambitious act.
The Ugly Organ

The Ugly Organ

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