On “Sink to the Beat”, the first track of Cursive’s latest EP Burst and Bloom, lead singer Tim Kasher breaks down the “formula” behind the EP in a wry, self-conscious way: “This unique approach to start an EP intended to shock, create a mystique / A cheap strategy, a marketing scheme building awareness for the next LP”, he sings, “They’ve got a good fan base, they’ve got integrity, they’ve got a DC sound, Shudder to Think, Fugazi and Chapel Hill around the early ‘90s / This is the latest from Saddle Creek”. No doubt intended to be funny, in a deconstructionist sort of way, these lines come off more to me as a battle cry: we and our Saddle Creek army are here to demolish you with our unique brand of kick-ass rock and roll. The rest of the song goes miles to establish said uniqueness, as surreal images meld with meditations on songwriting and the impact of infectious melodies on listeners while the music goes from sparse and intense to a punk-rock explosion.
The “this is the latest from Saddle Creek” line is likely meant as descriptive more than a proclamation of the Saddle Creek “scene”, yet the Omaha-based Saddle Creek label does indeed have an ever-growing roster of outstanding musicians who have diverse musical directions but a shared sense of honesty and a habit of letting their own personalities shine without regard for airplay or sales. Cursive ranks right with the rest of the Saddle Creek bands (Bright Eyes, The Faint, Son Ambulance, etc.) as far as creativity goes, but have their own unique sound, one not only unlike their labelmates, but unlike just about anyone else.
Built in part on punk rock energy and post-punk artfulness, Cursive’s sound also has pop melody, ambient sound, surrealism and a sense of melancholy, plus a somewhat experimental approach to song structure and, with the recent addition of cellist Gretta Cohn to theeir line-up, beautiful string arrangements. The strings are a gorgeous complement to the band’s sound, accompanying the rigid, stop-start movements of the guitars, bass and drums to lovely effect. Cello adds another layer to Cursive’s already complex sound on songs like “The Great Decay”, a Mark Eitzel-ish version of punk rock which explores both the wasteland landscape of the U.S. and similar feelings of emptiness within human lives.
Helplessness plays a role in several of the songs here, like “Tall Tales, Telltales”, a tale of being lost at sea, and “Mothership, Mothership, Do You Read Me”, a bizarre call to be rescued which has both suggestions of extraterrestrials and allusions to creation. Here the band achieves a haunting intensity that builds as Kasher screams the song’s title. It ends with an even weirder coda, a mix of odd vocal effects and scattered noise. These two songs tap into a certain fascination with the otherworldly that Cursive has, one that also plays out in the EP’s final track “Fairy Tales Tell Tales”, a complex love song with references to apparitions.
The otherworldliness of some of Cursive’s lyrics is complemented by music that capitalizes on the surprise factor to go into a variety of earthly and unearthly directions. Classify Burst and Bloom as punk rock, if you’d like, but it’s so much more: a multifaceted creation from a group with a sound that is wholly its own.