That is, until the very end of the set, when Connor Oberst (the dour crooner proclaimed by critics to be the indie Bob Dylan) sneaks out onto the stage, knocking shoulders with several of the Cursive kids in a flailing rock-star moment, briefly creating chaos before sucking it back with him as he exits. While the Bright Eyes frontman may not have stolen the show, he certainly took it for a playful spin.
Oberst's appearance is all too convenient, because a discussion about Cursive inevitably leads to a discussion about the band's label, Saddle Creek, which, in turn, leads to a discussion about Oberst and Bright Eyes. It's normal for every label to have its gifted golden child, a group that, via units moved, Gap ads scored, or scandals provoked, becomes synonymous with the label itself (see Sun Records' Elvis Presley, Barsuk's Death Cab for Cutie, Matador's Pavement, etc.). How, then, do the other bands on a label avoid developing a Jan Brady complex?
Such is the question facing Cursive. The answer, perhaps, lies with Saddle Creek itself, which has blossomed into a truly nurturing independent imprint where, without the traditional music industry worries -- being forced to record an accessible hit single, work with a hip producer, etc. -- the songwriters are faced simply with the task of making artful records. The formula worked wonders for Bright Eyes, yielding 2002's successful Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil Keep Your Ear to the Ground. (What kind of major label would agree to a title like that?) Now it's working for Kasher and the members of Cursive, who, with their latest, the ambitious and intricate The Ugly Organ, are poised to revise what a pop record is capable of.
Revision, in this case, begins with the city of Omaha, Neb., the last place the layman would expect to find a ripe indie rock oasis. Getting there by surface travel from the west involves tolerating the flat, drab length of Interstate 80 and a radio dial stuffed with bland, commercial rock, country music, and advertisements for cattle sales. Once there, if you don't know where to look, all you'll find is your typical rural-cum-overdeveloped topography: Wal-Marts and gas station quickie marts filled with the chatter of Midwestern accents; a plethora of McDonald's teeming with pudgy, bright-eyed children anticipating Happy Meal toys. It's this city, however, that plays home to Saddle Creek, the indie label that has put out Cursive's last three records, as well as music by Spoon, the Faint, Rilo Kiley, and others.
Like most indies, Saddle Creek was started by a group of friends as a means of releasing other friends' work. But recently, thanks in large part to Bright Eyes, the label's popularity has grown a hundredfold. According to Kasher, though, this hasn't affected its ethos.
"It's very comfortable," he says, speaking by phone from the group's tour van. "It's all our friends. It's really just like family."
This dynamic is what makes Saddle Creek a DIY dream: It's a music entity that has become self-sufficient without the selling of souls or rights. It's likely, however, that this is a situation Cursive never dreamed possible.
The band began in 1995 as a quartet featuring Kasher, Matt Maginn (bass), Steve Pedersen (guitar), and Clint Schnase (drums). Kasher's unique voice and vocal phrasing (the latter of which is an obvious influence on late-wave emo bands like Dashboard Confessional) were perfectly complemented by energetic crescendos and vivid rhythmic phrases. These qualities began to draw increasingly dense crowds to live performances.
But it's pretty rare that a band, especially one like Cursive, whose complex sound lacks commercial viability, can sustain itself financially. So, when Pedersen moved to another state to pursue a law degree, the group was unsure what the future held. Kasher then moved away as well, focusing his energy on other musical projects. A second Cursive wind came, however, when, in mid-2000, the frontman returned to Omaha and started things up again, first working with friend and guitarist Ted Stevens on the acclaimed Domestica, then adding cellist Gretta Cohen to the roster. If Cursive had been on a major label, its members' desultory behavior would have gotten it dropped. But Saddle Creek stayed with it, and that perseverance would ultimately yield the band's most elaborate work to date, The Ugly Organ.
At first glance, Organ seems like a dig at the music industry. "Well, here we go again/ The art of acting weak/ Fall in love to fail/ To boost your CD sales/ (And that CD sells -- yeah, what a hit)/ You've got to repeat it/ You gotta sink to swim/ If at first you don't succeed/ You gotta re-create your misery," Kasher sings on "Art Is Hard," the record's second track. But he is quick to dismiss this notion. "It's definitely open to interpretation," he says, "but that wasn't what we intended."
Talking about the process of writing Organ, Kasher uses the terms "art," "frustration," and "sexuality" a lot. His words prompt a second reading of the record, which reveals not a frustration with the music industry but with what the musician faces. The organ in question operates as both a medium for conveying art (you know, the one with all the black and white keys) as well as a vessel of love and sexuality (which is hardly ever black and white). "[T]he songs from the ugly organ/ ... What comes out is a horrible mess," Kasher sings on "Butcher the Song." Clearly he's spent much time contemplating the function of his instruments.
The record's lyrics are only part of what makes it so intricate: Guitars jab like street fighters; crisp strings evoke tension in some moments and soothing, grand beauty in others; drums tease the vocal melodies. Musically, the group casts aside straightforward rock, skewing rhythms where necessary to support the predominant vocals.
"A Gentleman Caller" is pure, grating evil for a minute and 25 seconds, at which point it becomes joyous, celebratory, and inspirational. The change is the perfect companion for the repeated line "The worst is over" (a line that reappears at the end of the album's last track, "Staying Alive"). It's exactly this flexibility -- the willingness to throw out traditional pop structure in favor of placing two distinct antagonistic emotions in one song -- that allows Cursive to stand out from its contemporaries.
Organ is an achievement many bands can only dream about. Granted, Kasher and company are mainly responsible for this. However, the album is a shining example of what bedroom labels that eschew industry conventions are capable of. And if we can expect more records like this from Cursive, the band need never worry about being upstaged by Mr. Connor Oberst.