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