Headlining the 2004 Plea for Peace Tour
May 9 at Exit/In
In recent years, the term "emo" has taken on something of a pejorative cast. Radio-ready navel-gazers such as John Mayer and Dashboard Confessional, who get tagged as emo but are far removed from the genre's hardcore roots, haven't helped. Beyond that, there's the sense that too much introspection just isn't good for rock 'n' roll. The Omaha band Cursive, however, remind us that emo's guiding principlesunflinching self-analysis, skeptical sincerity and passionate deliveryare as valid for rock as they are for any style of music.
Emo emerged from punk and hardcore in the mid- to late 1980s; its roots are traceable to bands like Hüsker Dü, who combined hardcore attitudes with confessional subject matter. By the mid-'90s, emo was defined by driving rhythms, extreme dynamic shifts, anti-commercialism and, most significantly, deeply personal lyrics, which often were screamed or sobbedand practically incomprehensible. Despite gaining adherents, the movement rankled cynics who found the way that emo bands wore their hearts on their sleeves hard to take.
In 1997, after releasing a slew of 7-inch singles (another emo hallmark), Cursive put out their first full-length record, Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes on the Crank! label. The album was textbook emocore, with jagged guitars, thundering drums and screeching vocals from principal songwriter Tim Kasher. Over the next three years, Cursive broke up and got back togetheryet another emo hallmarkin the process making two concept albums for Omaha's Saddle Creek Records: The Storms of Early Summer: Semantics of Song and Domestica. (The bane of '70s pop-rock, concept albums have been adopted by emo bands who like how they allow them to present their introspections on an epic scale.)
By this time, Cursive were gravitating toward a specific brand of emo that was associated with indie rock. Along with bands like Joan of Arc and Jets to Brazil, they toned down their vocal harshness in favor of intricate arrangements and a clearer, more earnest singing style. This opened the band up to charges of self-indulgence and hypersensitivity, which, though not entirely unjustified, nevertheless obscured Kasher's gift for writing rock lyrics. "What did that prick whisper to you?," he sings on "The Martyr" (from Domestica). "Was it playful and flirty / Or degrading and dirty? / I know you like it both ways."
Last year, Cursive released The Ugly Organ, a concept album that plays itself out as an operetta, right down to the stage directions the band included on the CD's lyric sheet. A lament for Kasher's post-marital indiscretions, the record's dramatic arc is enhanced by the alternately linear and jagged lines of cellist Gretta Cohn, which serve to tie the album's shifting rhythms with its themes of sexual and artistic emptiness.
Most significantly, The Ugly Organ points a finger at the musical style to which Cursive adheres. "What a day to sever such ugly extremities," Kasher sings on "Butcher the Song." He's not talking about the organ that first comes to mind here, but instead about the mechanics of emo itself, a machinery that he feels obliged to keep greasing. "Well, here we go again / The art of acting weak / Fall in love to fail / To boost your CD sales," he sings on "Art Is Hard," putting his own introspection under the microscopea practice of which legions of sensitive singer-songwriters should take note.
Such restless self-analysis isn't wimpy or self-obsessed, but rather courageousas is the band's decision to headline the 2004 Plea for Peace tour, which encourages participation in the electoral process. Indeed, maybe it's time to put the emo label to rest and give a band like Cursive credit for what they've become, a strong rock band who aren't afraid to open themselves, and their contemporaries, up to inspection.
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