What a concept

May 11, 2007

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

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 records."

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 so.

"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
 $24
 (312) 559-1212

 

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