Cursive/Eastern Youth: Eight Teeth to Eat You
Their 2000 release, Cursive's Domestica cemented Omaha, Nebraska-based foursome Cursive's status as one of the best bands currently operating in the post-punk idiom. Domestica was a vicious song cycle based on the theme of a disintegrating relationship. Not exactly the most original terrain to explore, to be sure, but singer/songwriter Tim Kasher approached the topic with a harrowing intensity that made it impossible to ignore. One of the things that made Domestica such an impressive piece all around was its thematic unity, as well as Kasher's ability to switch points of view mid-song. Initially this approach can come across as more than a little bit confusing, but when one figures out exactly what Kasher's up to, it veers perilously close to genius. Before the making of Domestica, Kasher himself went through a messy, painful divorce - and while he continues to maintain that Domestica is purely a work of fiction, you don't need to be an English professor to figure out that a great deal of Kasher's own personal trauma informed those songs.
After that watershed release, Cursive kept a fairly low profile, with Kasher spending more time concentrating on his other band, the more pop-oriented The Good Life. Last year's Burst and Bloom EP was just fine, but a bit of a comedown after the amazing Domestica. Continuing the trend of oddly-formatted releases, now we have not a new full-length for 2002, but a split LP with an obscure Japanese punk band! It's unclear what Kasher and his band are trying to accomplish with these odds-and-ends releases, but whatever it is, they're certainly doing it their own way.
As for Cursive's half of this LP, well, once again, it's just fine, but pretty much fails to compare to the best moments on their last two full-lengths. Kasher's writing is still strong, but it doesn't quite resonate with the fire and intensity that burned through Domestica and Semantics of Song: The Storms of Early Summer. The opener, "Excerpts From Various Notes Strewn Around the Bedroom of April Connolly Feb 24, 1997", is fairly brilliant, with Kasher indulging in the whole "switch points of view mid-song" trick that he perfected on Domestica. Here, however, a simple glance at the lyric sheet will tell you what Kasher's up to, as, inserted midway through the text are the lines "And the drunken, erratic response from April's ex-boyfriend Trevor Post, on finding said various notes", making it fairly obvious what's going on. Thankfully, the song manages to transcend this obviousness, with Gretta Cohn's ominous, brooding cello line giving extra heft to Kasher's and Ted Stevens' angular guitar figure.
Kasher is also to be commended for his ability to create memorable vocal hooks out of lyrics that basically amount to snippets of dialogue: "Excerpts" is Kasher stitching together narrative lines like "Yeah, I remember - I remember everything, the haircuts, the dollar movies. We used to sneak a six-pack in your bag and wait for a girl to scream or a car to crash so we could crack open our cans", and making it work within the context of a rock song.
"Am I Not Yours" is a fairly incisive portrait of jealousy, featuring Kasher spinning another narrative tale, and a screamy chorus of "Jealousy / Am I not yours? / Jealousy / I am not yours". Unfortunately, after this song, Cursive start to lag a bit, and their last two songs don't quite match up to the first two. "Escape Artist" is sung by second guitarist Ted Stevens, and while Stevens is a consummate musician, his voice is more suited to the quieter, more pastoral material that he's explored in his other bands (formerly Lullaby for the Working Class, currently Mayday). When he tries to replicate Kasher's strident tones, the results aren't quite as impressive. Likewise, "May Flowers", seemingly a tale of a brother raping his sister, tries a little too hard for blood curdling intensity, and ends up being a little too obvious for its own good. When Kasher and Stevens team up to yell "Deflowered!" midway through the song, the result is a little more laughable than it is chilling.
Then, the real surprise of this release comes when Cursive packs up their gear and vacates the stage, to be replaced by veteran Japanese post-punkers Eastern Youth. At this point, I should mention that when I heard that the new Cursive record was actually a split with a Japanese punk band, I wasn't terribly thrilled, considering that most of the Japanese punk bands that I've come in contact with in my time have been closer to avant-garde noise hell than to actual music (a few bands, such as Husking Bee, providing the exception). However, Eastern Youth are like the proverbial opening band that shuffles onstage and modestly beats the stuffing out of the headliner. There's nothing modest about the Youth's music, though - a brash mix of post-hardcore and dynamic pop, Eastern Youth are the only band I can think of that will get you singing along to lyrics in a foreign language.
Yes, in addition to being Japanese, Eastern Youth take the additional step of actually singing in Japanese, and despite the fact that I haven't the foggiest idea what singer Hisashi Yoshino is going on about in any of their songs, I wouldn't have it any other way. To put it bluntly, these guys kick ass. Their music is simultaneously visceral and technical, often resembling a cross between The Police and and post-Hüsker Dü bashers you'd care to name. Yoshino is a fantastic singer, equally capable of larynx-shredding screams and more subtle shadings. Witness the beginning of "Muyohnosuke", where Yoshino's voice, rubberbandlike, bounds from a vein-popping scream to a falsetto croon and back again, as if the whole thing was as natural as eating pie. The overall effect, with the band ragin', full on behind him, is something like what might have happened had War-era U2 decided to cover a Mission of Burma tune. In Japanese, of course. If you actually take the time to head over to the band's label's website (fiveoneinc.com) and peruse the translations of Eastern Youth's contributions to Eight Teeth to Eat You, you'll find that Yoshino's lyrical expressions are just as eloquent as the pummeling fashion in which his band delivers them. For instance, the translation to a verse of "Bura Bura Bushi" reads "When I sing a song / It dies away into the sky / I don't get on -- and watch the train I was waiting for pass / When I take my glasses off, I disappear too". Existental? Yep. Brainy? Yep. A damn good argument for finally taking that Japanese class you've been meaning to take for all these years? Yep.
Amazingly, each of Eastern Youth's four contributions to Eight Teeth to Eat You manages the feat of being better than the previous; true to form, the frantic and ultra-melodic closer, "Itsudemo Kokoniiru" trumps them all. Yoshino's guitar playing is a marvel, switching from angular, spacious chords to complex single-note hooks at the drop of a hat. Tomokazu Ninmaya's rubbery bassline is all over the place, but still anchors the song appropriately, and while there's nothing terribly flashy about Atsuya Tamori's drums, this is just as well, considering just how busy the other elements of the song are.
While Eastern Youth have been together for over 10 years, and are a major force on the Japanese independent punk scene (to the point of owning their own label and putting together festivals themselves), their contributions to Eight Teeth to Eat You represent the first time that their music will be heard by a sizeable American audience. With any luck, this will translate into a seedling fanbase for this phenomenal band. Eastern Youth are truly in a class of their own. They manage the trick of taking recognizable elements and forging them into something wholly different, original and wonderful, and should be rewarded richly for their abundant talents.