The Ugly Organ is the fourth full-length from Omaha's Cursive, and the first LP by the band since 2000's Domestica, in which Cursive shows what happens when talented emo bands actually write songs. What happens? Magic!
The magic of Domestica came from all over the place. Some of it was Pavement-by-way-of-DC-sounding angular guitar pop. Other magic came courtesy of loud, ugly guitars, the kind that actual rock bands used to play. Then there was the bit about them actually being an emo band, of course; that whole thing about Domestica being a concept record about lead singer Tim Kasher's real-life divorce, which must have involved some of the worst arguments ever, based on the nasty sentiments enclosed on songs like "The Martyr" and "The Lament of Pretty Baby." The album managed to discuss emotional subject matter without becoming overbearing or trite. The whole operation went some distance towards explaining why exactly this emo business was granted genre-autonomy in the late 1990s.
This music critic was of the opinion that Cursive had gotten lost in the desert somewhere on the way to recording the follow-up to Domestica. Their 2001 EP Burst and Bloom saw the introduction of cellist Gretta Cohn, but was something of a regress on the songwriting front. The band released a split LP with Japanese band Eastern Youth last year, a release that promptly got eaten alive by its own indie-ness, despite a few neat moments on the Cursive half of the record.
Let's get at this Ugly Organ business: The primary challenge in forming an appreciation of Cursive's work is their tendency to produce drastic shifts in tone and volume. With the addition of Cohn's cello, the band is even more prone to long fits of down-tempo acoustic instrumentation ("The Recluse"), chased hotly by really loud guitars where relevant ("Some Red Handed Slight of Hand," although they may have meant "sleight"), in which Kasher introduces the themes of the album like some sort of emo ringmaster). Just as frequently, the band foregoes the loud-quiet nonsense for plain old pop music, albeit with an unconventional guitar sound and Kasher's atypical singing style ("Driftwood: A Fairy Tale").
Then there's the other crap: the weird walkie-talkie sounds, random female vocals, electronic farting, and all that jazz. We here at Voices are no friends to electronic farting, but we could get accustomed to this farting if everybody did it like Cursive. Not too much, not too loud. A modicum of electronic farting. Good rule to live by, probably. The best part about this whole electronic farting business is that it doesn't overshadow the lyrics. Speaking of the lyrics, they're not as bad as you want them to be. Yes, these are emo lyrics. They could be worse.
The last angle we've got to cover are the songs where the band throws the quiet, the loud, the pretty, and the weird together and says hurtful things to them and jumps up and down and screams a bunch ("Staying Alive"). I like this song. I can only listen to it once a week, but I like it.
So, summa summatum, Cursive made a record. Much like previous Cursive records, there is a lot to like here. From one approach, the listener often wishes the band would stop being artists (the farting, the walkie-talkie sounds) and just play loud rock music. The counterargument, I suppose, would be that Cursive would then be just another emo band. Well, it's not the worst problem in the world. As things stand, Cursive's Organ stands out from the horde of skinny-white-guys-with-commitment-problem acts on the strength of their insistence on being interesting.
Cursive plays at the Metro on March 20 with Small Brown Bike and No Knife.