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

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image