Music

Cursive: Happy Hollow

Omaha postpunkers get political, bring the horns, on 14 "hymns for the heathen".


Cursive

Happy Hollow

Label: Saddle Creek
US Release Date: 2006-08-22
UK Release Date: 2006-08-21
Amazon
iTunes

Omaha indie kingpins Tim Kasher of Cursive and Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes spent several years in a sort of competitive meta-lechery, boast/whining about their promiscuous ways until it wasn’t clear whether they were singing about groupies to attract the attention of further groupies and thus provide grist for more songwriting, or picking up groupies to inspire more songs and thus widen their groupie nets. It all came to a head on Cursive’s 2004 album The Ugly Organ, on which Kasher adopted his girlfriend’s persona to demand, "Who’s Tim’s latest whore?" Not even the Bright Eyes song that threatened to trap a conquest in a song tied to a melody could top that one.

As shameless and narcissistic (not to mention chauvinistic) as Kasher and Oberst were, deconstructing their urges while simultaneously reveling in the amorous opportunities afforded them by their semi-rockstar positions, they managed to draw some pretty compelling music out of it. The Ugly Organ in particular stood out, not so much for its hyper-self-referentiality as its sharp autocritique, piercing enough to satisfy a Maoist. But one can take these masculine-ambivalence tricks only so far; there’s a reason Warren Beatty never made a sequel to Shampoo.

Having thus explored contemporary male lust, at least of the fairly straight, vanilla, indie/emo variety, both bands next discovered politics. The Bright Eyes story is well-known enough, but Happy Hollow marks Cursive’s expansion from the personal to the political, or perhaps the band’s recognition that the two interweave. It’s a grasping, tentative effort -- Kasher is clearly still more comfortable pleading his Clintonian case that a few drinks and a trip back to an apartment need not necessarily indicate infidelity than he is crafting sociopolitics into narrative form -- but a respectable, if unexceptional one, redeemed not by focal point Kasher but by the generally anonymous band members who bring a newfound groove to the table, leaving behind many of the staccato postpunk theatrics of days gone by.

Before the music even starts, Cursive’s goals are apparent on the cover art. With a postcard-panorama of the small (fictional) Midwestern town Happy Hollow, the cover invokes Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, and Kasher’s lyrical approach -- 14 "hymns for the heathen", each coming from the perspective of an denizen of the town -- suggests that Kasher has taken at least a few nights off from his carousing to read some Sherwood Anderson (maybe some James Joyce too, since the first track opens Finnegans Wake-style with echoed traces of the album’s conclusion).

The problem is, while these folks might inhabit Happy Hollow, Kasher doesn’t quite inhabit them. "I know this is wrong, 'cause I’m taught this is wrong," intones a closeted clergyman in "Bad Sects", while the middle-aged Dorothy of "Dorothy Dreams of Tornados," long since given up on Oz and now merely hoping to get the hell out of Kansas, cries in her chorus, "this city, this city’s killing us." Too rarely do these hymns sound like actual interior monologues or conversations. By the time the young man being forced off to war tells his girlfriend, "I put up with your family, full of bigots and fanatics," Kasher’s limitations when it comes to writing outside of himself are obvious (and that’s without discussing the gay hustler of "So-So Gigolo", who sounds like he was hashed out 10 minutes after a screening of Mysterious Skin). These characters sound more like Kasher’s projections of specific socioeconomic positions than real people, and Kasher too infrequently digs beneath description to really enter his creations’ consciousness.

That’s not to say Happy Hollow fails utterly in its goals. If Kasher never quite brings the town’s residents to life, he does carefully integrate an extensive set of hot-button topics (creationism, homophobia, war, and unplanned pregnancies, among others), and his lyrics are far from a total wash (as the aforementioned hustler slyly notes, "this city has quite the service industry"). Sometimes when the façade of character persona is at its thinnest the songs connect the most, as on "Rise Up! Rise Up!," a rousing, polemical anti-church screed straight from the songwriter himself. Further mitigating the shortcomings is closing track "Hymns for the Heathen" (which would have arguably made a better album title), on which Kasher categorizes the songs as parables and lists their themes for us. It’s a bit of a patronizing gesture, but it works surprisingly effectively as a wrap-up.

If Happy Hollow doesn’t astound lyrically, though, it swings with force musically. Departing cellist Greta Cohn has been replaced with a roaring horn section that injects a real liveliness into the songs. Nothing here is too complicated (Cursive has scaled back on the more ponderous facets of its mid-to-late-'90s meanderings), but as the horns bleat and boom (foregrounded by producer Mike Mogis) they bring an appropriately bombastic heft to Kasher’s Big Picture framework. The singer occasionally gets caught up in their raucous din; in the middle of a line about "gratuitous gratification" on "Dorothy at Forty" he suddenly launches into a high-pitched squeal that belies the seriousness of his lyric with its unrepentant playfulness. While guitarist Ted Stevens and drummer Clint Schnase eagerly adopt themselves to the musical appurtenances, bassist Matt Maginn takes charge with his rolling basslines, which lay the bedrock for many of the songs with their solid grooves. On "So-So Gigolo" Schnase’s low rumbling practically approaches "Livin’ on a Prayer" terrain, and Kasher momentarily verges on succumbing to the anthemic undertow; when he sings, "you can’t just give it away, for free", the phrasing practically begs him to let his hustler spokesman hold on to what he got.

It doesn’t make a difference if the hustler makes it or not, though, because Happy Hollow is ultimately less about its characters than using them as devices through which to articulate political opinions. The opinions are in the right, which is to say they recognize complexities and grey areas and thus stand against the image of the world George W. Bush and his fellow liars offer us, but they’re not particularly interesting. That’s alright: if Kasher’s lyrics bring the Hollow, the band brings the Happy, and if the American Left remains mired in a cesspool of inertia and disorganization, beneath the words these stomping songs promote their own winning politics of rebellion and hope.

6


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Film

Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.

Music

The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.

Music

Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.

Music

Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.

Music

Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.

Film

The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.

Music

Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.

Music

Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.

Music

Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Music

Songwriter Shelly Peiken Revisits "Bitch" for '2.0' Album (premiere)

A monster hit for Meredith Brooks in the late 1990s, "Bitch" gets a new lease on life from its co-creator, Shelly Peiken. "It's a bit moodier than the original but it touts the same universal message," she says.

Music

Leila Sunier Delivers Stunning Preface to New EP via "Sober/Without" (premiere)

With influences ranging from Angel Olsen to Joni Mitchell and Perfume Genius, Leila Sunier demonstrates her compositional prowess on the new single, "Sober/Without".

Music

Speed the Plough Members Team with Mayssa Jallad for "Rush Hour" (premiere)

Caught in a pandemic, Speed the Plough's Baumgartners turned to a faraway musical friend for a collaboration on "Rush Hour" that speaks to the strife and circumstance of our time.

Music

Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."

Music

The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.

Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.