Happy Hollow

(Saddle Creek; 2006)

By Clayton Purdom | 4 September 2006

When I applied for CMG, I was desperate, thirsty and sad. I’d kicked emo cold turkey, but indie rock wasn’t working like methadone should, and I wanted a megaphone for my pangs. So I wrote a long, angry review of a nice enough band called Lovedrug. The central point of this review was that simply dismissing Lovedrug as a bad band because they were emo was unfair; over careful, repeated listens, there revealed a multitude of better, more specific reasons for disliking the band. The emo tag was irrelevant; Lovedrug sucked because their riffs didn’t work, their lyrics were all recycled imagery about angels, etc. Now, I don’t really hate this band or anything, but if I wanted to dismiss them again it’d be much easier to just explain it like so: “I dunno, man, they’re emo” (stubbing out a Pall Mall). But they didn’t suck because they were emo; they sucked because they sucked. Emo has, somehow, lost its meaning as something categorical, as something used to describe a certain musical experience, and turned into a qualitative delineation. “Emo” doesn’t mean “emo,” it means “bad emo.” As a result, people (critics) go great lengths to separate superficially similar bands like the Wrens from (shudder) Dashboard Confessional.

Why is that? And, more importantly, what can a band like Cursive do in the crossfire? Second question first: make records like Happy Hollow, and before it The Ugly Organ (2003), and before that Domestica (2000): complicated, concise collections of jagged, conceptual emo, unabashed of both the howling fury and populist hook-work they contain, all while juggling big ideas about music and art and religion and sex. (An example of all of this is the absurd ska bounce the band gives the refrain “What happens in confession / Stays in the confession” in “At Conception.”) Tim Kasher’s an unhappy dude, after all, letting a sour relationship convince him to cast off love altogether (Domestica), and then teasing out the moment he lost his religion into a macabre melodrama (The Ugly Organ). These themes aren’t solely his--poor Lovedrug, my whipping boy, treads these tired tropes as well, as do a veritable army of unhappy choirboys. So Kasher and co. are emo, I admit. Certainly more so than much of this nouveau-riche pretty-boy horsecock like Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco, bands that, btw, MTV has apparently decided is The Sound of Now, not content to just play the fucking videos all the time but now handing them a wheelbarrow of Moonmen for no apparent reason, and now Jared Leto thinks he can wear that fucking scarf and get away with it. The dilemma, back to my point: emo means bad. And Cursive are, by any logical definition, a pretty damn good emo band. What to do.

The music is absurd stuff, but one could always just embrace it fully. The cello spikes of The Ugly Organ have been replaced with an equally sledgehammer-subtle brass section on Happy Hollow, and Kasher employs his orchestra of the damned giddily. “Big Bang” bangs big blasts of dissonant horn bluster, while “Dorothy Dreams of Tornadoes” weaves the brassy exuberance into the song’s actual framework, coming as punctuation first and catharsis toward the end. The album’s emotional breaking point, “Rise Up! Rise Up!,” is an all-horn outburst, and it employs the instruments as generously as the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies did back before Avenged Sevenfold knew how to masturbate. Tact isn’t Kasher’s strong suit, but melody is; “Bad Sects,” overwrought as its arrangement and production are, is a sublime piece of music, at once hushed and tough, and “Retreat!” is the fucking jam, despite its warbling horniness and skittery footwork.

But embracing Cursive like this could be embarrassing. Who wants to be seen blasting the too-clean thrash of “Dorothy at 40,” a song that shares some DNA with the All-American Rejects? Cursive aspires for greater things, and Kasher’s aims are marred by over-production, a Nickelback whoosh here, a digitized cascade there. Worse, Kasher’s hysterics can elicit cringes. A line like “It’s time to stick a fork in the merciless socket of time,” from dull “The Sunks,” would be embarrassing as a joke, but Kasher fucking means this shit. Embracing the record fully isn’t right. It’s too cocksure a move down the slippery slope toward Vagrant Records.

How’s this: reconcile Kasher’s occasional grimace-inducing overreach with an appreciation for the bizarrely brilliant way he approaches the heady topics his albums tackle. Happy Hollow is the existentialist extension of The Ugly Organ’s attack on religion and relationships, and the angles he takes are unflaggingly Kasheresque (sorry). He flays Dorothy for dreaming away her life, tells Jesus to “stay away on holiday,” and trashily casts himself as a prostitute. The “woe is me” flailing of “Big Bang” is undercut by Kasher’s savage wit, summing things up aptly: “There was this big bang once / Now we’re learning to use our thumbs.” That scabrous sense of humor is spread a bit thin on Happy Hollow, which runs a solid five songs too long (Domestica’s finest quality was the concision of its assault). Exactly which tracks in particular deserved pared away, I’ll not really get into; “So So Gigolo” feels incomplete, and “The Sunks” is a lull, but these songs serve a purpose in Kasher’s greater thematic arc. But it’s this overreach, finally, that solves the Cursive conundrum. It would be impossible for Kasher’s ambitions to be greater, which should make his band, well, Coheed & Cambria, but he roots the brash scope of his ideas in immediately accessible music and sneering humor. It’s an unlikely recipe for an odd dish, but Happy Hollow finds Cursive as capable as ever at producing their inarguably good bad music.