Omaha is home to the incestuous Saddle Creek stable of bands, which includes Conor Oberst's Bright Eyes and Desaparecidos, the Faint, and Lullaby for the Working Class, as well as the protagonist of this piece, Tim Kasher, and his bands, Cursive, and The Good Life.
Though the musicians in Omaha have labored in relative anonymity for years, recent releases like Bright Eyes' Fevers and Mirrors, Cursive's Domestica, Desaparecidos' Read Music/Speak Spanish, and the Faint's Danse Macabre have received accolades from the music press worldwide. Suddenly, Omaha's bands find themselves in a spotlight comparable to that experienced by Berkeley, California, and Olympia, Washington, in the mid-'90s, as an epicenter of underground talent and hipness.
The next Omaha bomb, The Good Life's Black Out, drops on March 4, the same day the band plays in Tempe, at Nita's Hideaway. It's only been six months since front man Kasher's Cursive released its Burst and Bloom EP, a remarkably short time to switch modes so drastically. Any two-bit head shrinker will tell you that split personalities don't develop overnight, and to understand the dichotomy between Kasher's two equally intensive projects, the complex hard-core outfit Cursive and the subdued melodic band called The Good Life, it helps to study his career's development.
Like many of the musicians driving Omaha's present-day explosion (Oberst, the Faint's Todd Baechle, Saddle Creek Records owner Robb Nansel, etc.), Kasher did time as a member of Commander Venus, a mid-'90s crunch-and-wail emotive hard-core band that released two albums before its implosion. Kasher left the group before its demise, primarily because he had formed his own group, Cursive, with guitarist Ted Stevens.
"Even though I do two bands now, I felt like it was more than I needed to be doing at the time," Kasher says, also pointing out that Commander Venus was more a vehicle for Oberst's developing songwriting skills than anyone else's.
Freshly married and into his early 20s, Kasher set about with his bandmates to create Cursive's sophomore album. Titled The Storms of Early Summer: Semantics of Song, the album was received enthusiastically by both hard-core kids and adherents of the melodic dynamism that was defining emo-core. But at the same time, Kasher was pouring his soul into soft, pretty songs that were nowhere close to Cursive's abrasive squall. "If I remember," Kasher says, "I was married, living with my wife, working on Cursive, but at the time feeling like I wanted to start doing something different. Even back then it was really what ended up being The Good Life."
This compulsion to develop the songs rambling through his mind led him to abandon Cursive. So he broke up the band, and moved with his wife to Portland, Oregon. But the results were unsatisfactory to him.
"That's where I wanted to start The Good Life," he says, seemingly unaware of the double entendre conveyed by the statement. "I had a really difficult time there, not only finding band members, but I wasn't acclimating very well. So we moved back to Omaha for our final . . ." he trails off. This is where it gets painful. He's referring to the final attempt to save his young marriage. He resumes, "We were together another year and a half after that, I think."
Home again, but emotionally wounded by his divorce, Kasher eventually re-formed Cursive after becoming frustrated with the arrested development of The Good Life. "Trying to do what ended up being The Good Life was so difficult, and I was having such a hard time finding band members to really stick with the project, that I just came back to Cursive and was like, I had no idea what a good thing I had, how comfortable it was and how diehard the musicians were. And they didn't give a shit at all, they were happy to play again."
With this new/old channel for his energies to course through, Kasher and Cursive began crafting what would become Cursive's Domestica, a brutally painful document of what goes on behind closed doors in relationships, an examination of the infamously thin line separating love and hate. "Ted [Stevens] and I initially wanted to do something, because Storms was so large and universal in scope, we wanted to do something very small. Very like day-to-day or instance-to-instance. So we came up with domesticated things, domesticated situations," Kasher explains.
Set to complexly timed, angular melodies that rise and crash, whisper and scream, the album is one of the most accomplished efforts in indie-rock/hard-core's history. The fact that it's an obvious reflection of Kasher's personal trauma only makes it more compelling.
Kasher speaks guardedly about his divorce and its role in his music, but the pain is manifest in the lyrical content. When he sings "A little bit closer/Your lipstick is smudged, dear/Here, let me wipe that smirk off" on "The Game of Who Needs Who the Worst," or "When you're selfless you're so hard not to adore/When you're selfish, I just love you even more" on "The Radiator Hums," the honesty in his voice is palpable.
Once Domestica had made its mark, Kasher felt free to obsess over his thus-far solo work, which would appear under the name The Good Life. "It was literally years that I was working on it and trying to get that together," Kasher says. "I finally buckled down, bought my own eight-track, and started working really hard on trying to record it. I did all the demos on my own, but once Better Looking [Records] offered to release it, I got some studio time and asked some friends to help me round out some edges."
Kasher's described The Good Life as the outlet for his "coffee house" music, but that descriptor comes up short. The first album, Novena on a Nocturn, is a soft, pretty album of delicately crooned dirges over tinkling keyboards and acoustic strums. Kasher's velvet voice glides through the melodies, his gift for affected phrasing resembling something close to Robert Smith of the Cure. The musicians alongside him are culled from Omaha's estimable talent pool: the Faint's Todd Baechle, Mike and A.J. Mogis of Lullaby for the Working Class, and others -- each track was fleshed out by a different lineup.
After Novena was released, Kasher needed a solid touring band, and eventually recruited the current Good Life lineup: multi-instrumentalists Ryan Fox and Jiha Lee, bassist Landon Hedges (also of Desaparecidos), and percussionist Roger Lewis. Kasher's long-incubating concept had finally materialized, in the flesh.
These are the musicians who rallied with Kasher to produce Black Out, The Good Life's latest recording excursion. Interestingly, the only similarities Black Out and Novena share are Kasher's rich vocals and the beats per minute. Black Out is The Good Life's Kid A, Novena its OK Computer. Chalk it up to the fact that Novena was written over the course of years, while Black Out is a much more immediate creation.
The new album is soaked with drum-machine breaks, electronic squawking, and soaring production (by Mike Mogis, the Midwest's indie über-producer). The morose topics on Black Out mirror Domestica's, but from The Good Life's perspective it's a much quieter sort of bleeding. "I figured it's two bands, so maybe that's okay," Kasher says of the similarity. "Maybe it's not okay, I don't know."
In this case, it's perfect. Kasher illuminates the dark corners of depression and loss. On "The New Denial," behind Joan of Arc-ish bleeps and chirps, he sings, "But Mama called and cried to me/'Baby, your anniversary was last Tuesday'/That's right . . . okay, I guess it slipped my mind." On the cowboy-ish "After O'Rourke's, 2:10 a.m.," he wails, "I hate when you say you need me/You don't need me/I hate even worse that I need you/It kills me."
The album is fluidly conceptual, bookended by two sparse acoustic bits, each titled "Black Out." Like his Chicago-land peers in Joan of Arc and the Promise Ring, Kasher weaves his songs together through their titles: "The Beaten Path" preludes "Off the Beaten Path," "O'Rourke's, 1:20 a.m." preludes "After O'Rourke's, 2:10 a.m." (O'Rourke's is a bar in Lincoln, Nebraska, where Kasher and producer Mike Mogis spent many of their collegiate nights.)
Black Out is a grand experiment of sorts for Kasher. He's dressed up his raw acoustic melodica in dense curtains of sound via his new fascination with electronics. "I threw a lot of money down on a drum-machine sampler, and I worked really hard at learning how to use it," he explains. "I came up with a lot of rudimentary beats, and those are all on the record, but mostly what you hear are contributions that Mike Mogis made. Basically hearing what it was I was getting at, and with all the equipment he has, he really helped bring that out to where we really wanted it. And now I understand how to do it for the next record."
Despite the album's grandeur, Black Out almost never saw the light of day. Throughout the record, Kasher sings of his frustration with making music; on "Drinking With the Girls," he proclaims, "You thought you had it made/Like the songs would write themselves/But your words ran out of ink/And your fingers lost the chords."
"I think everybody has certain doubts in whatever field they're trying to succeed in," Kasher says. "With Black Out, I was on tour with Cursive when I first got the master sent to me. I remember the first time I listened to it I nearly had a breakdown. I honestly disliked it so much that I was considering not releasing any of it. Any little imperfection just drove me crazy. I really enjoy it now; I'm really proud of what we came up with."
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