|Side One:||Side Two:|
If one checks back, one finds that I actually stated my next item on the block would be Cursive’s Happy Hollow. However, as I sat for a moment and considered that I had a Record Store Day exclusive on coloured vinyl (marbled yellow) and that release was one that was singled out by a friend (the words “so good” in a few incarnations came up, occasionally with profane emphases) as quality in the career of the band…I considered that perhaps I could once again write about an EP released by a band from whom I also own a full-length LP. Most pertinently, I guess, my good friend Brian–one of my most reliable folks for discussing music, which can be difficult for many in light of my erratic listening habits–is the person I most strongly associated the band with.
A few years back (around 2010-2011), an FYE (I apologize if the name shoots a dart of cold through your heart, fellow music aficionados) was purging a veritable truckload of bizarre, seemingly random CDs from numerous sources. In and amongst them were both a slew of the uninteresting and small dotted points of curiosity and excitement. I walked out with stacks of albums from numerous bands, some of which I had a bit of familiarity with (like Converge), others I’d never heard of but would come to like quite a bit (Manchester Orchestra, Hot Cross, Coalesce, Boysetsfire, The Dismemberment Plan), some I’d heard of from my dad but never listened to actively (John Hiatt, Peter Case, Bruce Cockburn), and some I had heard from other sources and couldn’t assign any sound at all despite this, like The Fall of Troy and this band–Cursive.
What I found myself holding first was actually Cursive’s Happy Hollow, which seemed like a find when it jumped out at me, but became the ever more enthusiastic matching pair and then set when I found The Ugly Organ and Domestica. I was enthralled pretty quickly, and slowly gathered singles and split releases, but alongside them–and first–Burst and Bloom and Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes. It wasn’t until one of my most ambitious Record Store Days that I ended up finding any Cursive on vinyl though. This EP was the first one I’d picked up, one of a run of 1,500, and the last I’d grab before a chance meeting with Happy Hollow at a later date.
“Sink to the Beat” starts the album on a rather playful note, single notes sliding gently up and down guitar strings, and Tim Kasher’s voice metallicized with an electronic filter, the subject somewhat “meta” as he sings: “I’ll try to make this perfectly clear I’m so transparent I disappear/These words I lyrically defecate upon songs I boldly claim to create”. His voice stops and Clint Schnase’s drumming joins, loud but recorded as if with a single microphone and in the corner of a room. If we were unsure that it was Schnase, Kasher erases any such doubt, his voice no longer filtered and the drums no longer far off or single-mic’d: “Clint steps in to establish the beat 4/4 hip hop and you don’t stop/This unique approached to start an EP intended to shock, create a mystique/A cheap strategy, a marketing scheme building awareness for the next LP”–it’s a musical version of XTC‘s Go 2 album cover.
However, unlike that (terribly fun and clever) Hipgnosis-designed cover, Kasher is speaking for himself, and begins to wave the description of the music into the song itself. Where Hipgnosis took an intentionally neutral but confessional tone, Kasher’s is conflicted and emotionally bare (as his words and voice usually are, to be fair). He compares the group to others (Fugazi, Shudder to Think) and to a local scene (the early 90’s in my recent haunt of some years–Chapel Hill). His voice is near monotone, listing as if about to run out of breath, but it suddenly begins to gain range as he sings of the way melodies can worm their way into your head, but then questions it with the thought that they “are like a disease/They can inflame your misery/They will infect your memory they haunt me”. It blurs the lines between what he is writing (singing) now, what he has heard himself, and how each affects him and others–in fact, he transposes the use of memory and melody when he repeats the line–now memories are like infectious disease, worming their way into melodies. After that repetition, his voice is quieter, and Matt Maginn’s bass appears for the first time, the melody softening with his voice, as do Schnase’s drums: “I write these words with a motherly intuition/I shape these sounds into harmonic apparitions”. Clint speeds the beat through his words, and then leaves behind the beat Kasher first described, but he starts playing with increasing force and distorted guitar whines in. The song explodes on the force of Maginn’s booming, rhythmic bassline. The clean, sliding guitar strings are gone–in their place is the sheen of jagged splashes of distorted reverberation, reverberation that solidifies into distorted knots of mid-range lead, which disappear on a drum hit.
Stripped back to the melody of Maginn’s entrance, Kasher is quiet again, but the majority of the melody is in the newfound cello of Gretta Cohn, which rises to the speeding splash of cymbals that “Stops….and bursts under pressure…” All ride, bass-kicks and extremely restricted muted guitar chords chopping in anticipation, Kasher sings quietly: “Let it burst and bloom” and driving slashes of distorted guitar, sawing cello, pounding drums and bass roar out as Ted Stevens joins him in screaming, “Hit song!” “Let it/Burst and bloom!” Kasher yells over and over to the song’s end.
After the release of “Sink to the Beat”, we’re given reprieve in the opening moments of “The Great Decay”: forward-leaning rapid picks at single muted strings hum with potential energy, released in distorted, loud, but subdued versions of the lick, Schnase picking up a peculiar alternation of snare and bass that jerks at the song like a twitching puppeteer. “This is the bed that I have made”, Kasher cries out suddenly in punctuated monosyllables, Stevens responding, “This is the grave where I will lay,” in kind, letting Kasher finish: “These are the hands where I will bury my face”. Another set of traded lines is followed by the monotone stutter of guitar riffs and then Maginn’s bass in prominent place below a quieted Kasher, who opens his throat again before the line even ends. Cohn’s cello rides in an interesting place for a band that alternates loud and quiet like this–it’s not the sound of quiet, clean, acoustic moments, nor a simplistic expansion of the distorted guitars, it’s another thread in the overall sound, moving through the first portion of loud distortion. “Give in, give in, give up!” Stevens and Kasher scream as if coming to either climax or abrupt end, but the song continues naturally, melding the unexpected melodiousness (relatively speaking) of Kasher’s harsh voice and the crunch and dissonance of his and Stevens’ guitars.
After three minutes, the song seems to stop, but instead its taken up by piano and organ¹, the piano sounding in-room like Clint’s first drum entrance, the organ sustained on all notes and caught between the sound of a church and Vincent Price movie, electronic sounds wiggling and warping their subtle way in around the two, gradually increasing to a mild cacophony (if that’s possible) of tuning strings, squeaks and creaks.
“Tall Tales, Telltales” builds from the same sounds “The Great Decay” ended with, guitars creeping in with slightly demented singular notes that gain a palm’s mute when Clint begins to pound fervently at his snare, a near-martial sound that slowly works a bass-kick into itself. “Now and again you’ll remember the sound/Of the sails waving helplessly”, sings Kasher, and it feels like the rise of snare, cello and guitar now sounds like maybe it’s the sway and rock of a ship, threatening to completely escape a sailor’s control. The cello breaks away, mournful, and the guitars crumble, splinter and spike, increasingly distraught but calming momentarily as if broken by waves. “But they send you no sign/Hold on sailor, hold on brother/Steady the vessel” Kasher begins to sing passionately, his voice wrapping itself around the commands, as if trying to calm the sailor, though it seems like a command given from the distance of remembrance or observation, rather than direct and intimate contact. Staccato, dramatic pounding of snares and wiry guitars suggest control may soon be lost, building a tension that is eased by the second guitar, until Kasher’s voice returns, now talking about the afterlife, dead reckoning, ghosts–a sense of doom, fate, and inexorable conclusions begins to wash through it, but there’s a release, the chorus falling away slowly to rapid, muted chords, the wandering sheets of feedback, and the fade of everything else–is it relief, and what kind? We’re not too sure.
Side Two starts with “Mothership, Mothership, Do You Read Me?” the fuzzy interference of connected circuits playing across the guitar riffs Matt answers with thick, thumping bass under which Clint’s beat drops to eight notes on the hi-hat. The guitars break free of their riff and work outward from their simple beginnings and introduce Kasher’s voice back to the record, everyone continuing on their path but now joined by Cohn, whose cello slips between them to draw low notes that ache from out of the guts of the song itself. When the next lines start (“Your starving – it’s burning for the nutrient it can’t have…”), they are ended with a clatter of strikes at guitars, jarring in the otherwise light backing. Stevens whispers his line: “Calling out to homebase, do you read me?” Kasher continues as quiet, “Emergency: we’re floating endlessly”, and Clint’s snares pound the song back up to volume.
“You’ve been created severed from life and limb/Stranded an infant/On the front step of the universe” Kasher and Stevens sing out together, and then the song shifts into a sort of cruising territory, with a delightful flourish of a hammer-on on the guitar that ends easily on Kasher’s word: “Now lost–Forever.” Schnase gallops to the zig zagged guitars, Cohn comes in with a cello part that could easily have sounded pasted in, playing such a different melody, but instead fits perfectly into a space no one else occupies, and leaves Kasher and Stevens calling out from their astral abandonment: “Mothership, mothership, do you read me?” “Does anyone…” Kasher continues, then whispers “…hear my siren song? Maybe I’ll be rescued before too long”. His efforts to be heard (“Calling out to homebase one last time”) are countered by the response of Stevens (“The signal faded out the ship is gone”), and we find ourselves back at the chorus (“You’ve been created…”). Continuing as it did before, Tim screams the final words: “Now lost–FOR-E-VER!” and the climax holds its volume and energy clattering and crashing to a sudden stop.
The last minute of the song is a rumble of bass set to a rapid drum machine, and the brittle pulls of a rapidly picked guitar, the drum machine credited to A.J. Mogis, Kasher’s words garbled and watery and incomprehensible. While it’s coded as part of the song on the CD, the distinct pause leaves the grooves implying almost a separate “interlude” of a track on the vinyl.
“Fairy Tales Tell Tales” starts with immediate drama, Clint bearing down on his toms as Ted and Tim scratch upward at their guitars. “Let’s pretend we’re not needy…” Kasher sings over nothing but hi-hat and Matt’s rumbling bass pulse, though his words are stressed by forceful punctuation from snare and distorted guitar. Those drums nearly disappear from the next lines, though the picking of guitar strings now joins him, and the guitar and snare return. Cohn enters with rueful strings, the emotion of her cello enhanced by the rock instruments “Low lives hiding in dives/There’s no feeling drinking, sleeping with strangers”, Kasher sings and the instruments crash together, Clint now bashing at drums and cymbals, guitars peeling out slicked screeches of chords, yanking back at reins momentarily. Cohn’s cello does not leave for a moment, but finds itself spotlighted with only Maginn’s guitar and the cold, cave-echo of Kasher’s quieted voice. Clint rejoins her with the propulsive pounding of toms that brings the song back to its sonic apex in volume and power. Kasher’s words vacillate between fatalistic depression, vague misanthropy, and the strangled despair of desperate pleas for some chance and hope beyond this. “So who is it that whispers in your ear?” whispers Kasher, guitars, drums and bass answering loudly with the dramatic riff they’d not yet had time to forget, “A haunting voice blows in through the window…” he continues, and the instruments do not hesitate in again blasting out a response. Kasher sings on, but the instruments drop away as he begins the line, “A needy, pleading apparation”, only a fuzzy, periodic guitar riff staying with him, and his voice and the band explode: “Crying, ‘Who am I if I’m alone? I hardly exist at all/Let’s pretend that we don’t need anything anymore from anyone./I don’t want to feel anything anymore – Let’s just pretend.'” And then it closes, brilliantly:
The band crushes down at their now-familiar riff, and “We’ll live,” he sings hopefully alone, the splash of colour that is that riff answers, “Happily,” and as it returns to crash down, he finishes–“Ever after.”
Cursive occupies a lovely spot in music, for me. I was suddenly stricken by how much they remind me of other bands in the hardcore-inflected wave of “emo” in the late 90s, the kind that tends to be more abrasive, aggressive and post-hardcore in sound–particularly heard in another band I do very much love: Piebald. There’s a sort of shared oddity to the two: Tim Kasher and Travis Shettell (Piebald’s primary vocalist) are both quite limited singers with respect to clear ranges, but both use the stretches and cracks of that limitation to wonderful effect. Similarly, they both started from a rather more basic song structure that diversified and changed over time. Of course, Piebald ended up going in a very different direction eventually, but there’s an interesting intersection somewhere around this time.
Kasher has readily woven the lyrics of this EP into a unified whole, though with neat enough movements that it can easily be split into separate components. “Sink to the Beat” inserts personal emotion into the more concrete action of songwriting, and the calculated movements of marketing that action into a career–his intentions, his reactions, his attempts to control and failures to do so. “The Great Decay” follows a thread of this, the loss of identity and the wasted time in a world that drains both, amounting to less than is expected or intended–much as intentions in songwriting may be lost, subverted or wrested away by the moment. “Tall Tales, Telltales” shifts it into metaphorical grounds–a sailor at see attempting to maintain a vessel’s course through storm, pondering absently the thought of being “lost beneath/a substance so dark, yet elementary”, and then passes the thought immediately to keep at the standing needs of the ship. “Mothership, Mothership, Do You Read Me?” is another kind of ship–a spaceship, of course–abandoning a crew member, and navels and “your mother’s loving grasp” melding it into more personal abandonments and losses. “Fairy Tales Tell Tales” is nothing but attempting to make something of a relationship when it feels as though such a thing is inherently impossible, that pretense is a necessity for it to work, pleading to the other to take this route, to keep sense and meaning in life.
There’s an overwhelming sense of inevitability in this, but it’s contrasted with the boom and crash of music that plays beauty and melody in, against, and even with dissonance, harsh sounds and abrasive moments and instruments–there’s hope, heavily oppressed by that feeling of inescapable failure, but hope nonetheless, stretching out a hand and begging for relief from this, believing it’s possible but unlikely to reach. It would be depressing, but for the fact that that hope seems to be consistent, lasting and determined, even in desperation.
I am glad I went with this EP–it hits something different from what I remember of Happy Hollow or The Ugly Organ (the two albums I’ve heard most), striking me as more personal and bare than either is, more intense in that sense, if not the musical one.
- Next Up: Darkest Hour – ?
¹The album contains no specific credits, so it’s easy to place the band’s members into the roles of their primary instruments (and identifiable voices), but the less commonly used instruments–your guess is as good as mine. If your guess is better, I’m guessing it’s not a guess.