In the multi-layered world created on Cursive's fifth album, Happy Hollow is
a moderate-sized middle-American city with classic middle-American values,
though just below the surface, many of its denizens are grappling with the
heavy philosophical question of whether God exists or if religion is simply
a panacea and the justification for endless hypocrisies.
"'Concept album' has become a dirty word," guitarist-vocalist Tim Kasher
says. "People think it's a bad thing -- that there's something pretentious
about it. But as a public, don't we all like the classic '70s concept
Indeed we do, and last year's "Happy Hollow" is strong enough musically
and lyrically to add to the list of the great ones. Over rollicking and
occasionally horn-driven grooves boasting influences ranging from the
psychedelic Beatles to New Wave heroes such as XTC and the Teardrop Explodes
to Bruce Springsteen -- the postcard cover art intentionally evokes
"Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ" -- the group's 14 "hymns for heathens" each
examine the issue of religion from the perspective of a different resident
of the fictional city of the album's title, from the philandering priest to
the parents bidding farewell to a son going off to fight in Iraq.
Cursive first came together in 1995 when Kasher joined forces with
bassist Matt Maginn, drummer Clint Shnase and Steve Pederson, who was
replaced by guitarist-vocalist Ted Stevens in 1999. The group signed to
Saddle Creek Records in their native Omaha, Neb., which has often prompted
critics to lump them in with Bright Eyes and the emo crowd that made that
label famous. But Cursive's sound has always been much broader and more
ambitious, and the quartet reached a new level with its 2003 album "The Ugly
Organ," a complex and emotional song cycle about relationships.
"We've always kind of tried to avoid being pegged to any one genre,
because it's tedious, and it's frustrating as a songwriter," Kasher says.
The band is finally starting to escape the "emo" tag, but now it's worried
that it will be branded with a new one. "One of the things that concerns Ted
and I is that if we're not careful, we're going to be 'the concept record
band'! We don't want to be any particular kind of band; we just want to do
what we do. That being said, it tends to be our favorite way of writing
things -- to have the cohesion of a central idea. I tend to get a lot more
out of records where I feel like they were somewhat labored and really
thought out, instead of just a handful of singles and separate tracks that
somehow got compiled for no reason anyone understands."
The notion of writing about religion came from the desire to craft
different narratives for a range of characters, Kasher says, though the
group knew it risked alienating some listeners by coming down firmly on the
side of the atheist.
"We went through so many bouts of being worried about it and way too
concerned, and we had to keep reassuring each other to stand by our
convictions. But I think it's good to be scared and to be afraid of going
out on a limb. For personal and public reasons, it was important to me to
attempt to be a voice for atheism -- something to combat the heavy push of
fundamentalism that we have been all faced with it these last five years or
"There have been strands of a backlash: We've gotten a handful of
e-mails, and we have been pointed to things online written by people
distressed about the content," Kasher admits. "But we just have to face it
and accept it. I'm frustrated with what I consider to be the
small-mindedness of people who have turned away from our writings because
they won't even open up the dialogue. For me that's the problem. The best
reactions I got were from my family, which is very Catholic. They're all
still Catholic, but they loved having someone in the family opening up the
dialogue and asking all of these questions."
So far, the band's new album has yet to generate the level of excitement
that greeted "The Ugly Organ." Some of this may be due to fans who wanted
the band to repeat itself. "You don't want to run with something and then
put out 'The Ugly Organ, Parts 2, 3 and 4,'" Kasher says. "That's just not
something I do; there's just no challenge to it." But there's also the fact
that "Happy Hollow" is an album that takes some time to fully appreciate,
and which grows richer and deeper with every listen. It may require fans to
think a bit more than most rock records do, but in the end, that's a concept
that's worth applauding.
Death rocks in Iseri's 'Big' satire
That death is a good career move is one of the hoariest but truest
cliches in rock 'n' roll. This means it's more than ripe for satire, and
local musician Scotty Iseri, who does his thing under the name the Big Rock
Show, is doing exactly that during a monthlong Saturday night residency at
Davenport's Cabaret, 1383 N Milwaukee.
"At the Big Rock Show, we've taken every single rock cliche and stood it
on its ear, but to be honest, album sales have been in the toilet," Iseri
wrote me. "So what better way to give sales a shot in the arm than by taking
a shot to the head? Billed as 'The World's Smallest Stadium Rock Concert,'
the Big Rock Show is a mock-rock act falling roughly somewhere between 'The
Daily Show' and 'Spinal Tap.' The music has been called a hybrid of Jonathan
Richman, the Violent Femmes and Randy Newman, and in its latest and possibly
final incarnation, we will be attempting to re-create every famous rock 'n'
roll death, from Michael Hutchence choking on humiliation to Mama Cass
choking on a ham sandwich."
I'm not sure exactly how Iseri will pull any of that off, but I, for one,
am intrigued. The show starts at 10:30 p.m. Saturday and May 19 and May 26.
Tickets are $13 at the door with a 2 drink minimum. Call (773) 278-1830 or
visit either www.scottyiseri.com or www.davenportspianobar.com.
MASTODON; CURSIVE; AGAINST ME!; PLANES MISTAKE FOR STARS
• 6:30 p.m. Saturday
• Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine
• (312) 559-1212