Cursive - Biography

The short version is that Cursive are a critically acclaimed American alternative rock band on Saddle Creek Records, deeply entrenched in the Omaha, NE music scene. They’ve released a succession of 7” singles, EPs and split releases as well as appeared on various compilation records. And for more than a decade, they’ve been putting out engaging, literate, powerful, highly conceptual and musically sophisticated albums. But it’s not that simple. “Alternative rock” doesn’t really cut it; neither does emo, post hardcore, post rock, math rock, indie rock, art rock or experimental rock. But that might give you an idea — not that they’re derivative, but that they’re hard to peg. Cursive’s history and sprawling family tree are even more tangled. When the band got together in Omaha in 1995, the founding members, Tim Kasher and Matt Maginn came from another Omaha band, Slowdown Virginia, the first band to get picked up by the scene-making label Saddle Creek (founded originally by Conor Oberst as Lumberjack Records in 1993). They formed a four piece with drummer Clint Schnase and guitarist Steve Pederson from Smashmouth, who left in 1998 (when Cursive broke up) to form a Chapel Hill band called The White Octave, and later he returned to Omaha to form Criteria. So, after releasing a series of 7” inch singles and two albums, Cursive re-formed in 1999 with Ted Stevens (of Lullaby for the Working Class). In 2001 they welcomed cellist Gretta Cohn, who stayed on board until 2005, and when Shnase left the band, he passed his drumsticks to Cornbread Compton, who in turn handed them to Cully Symington, who remains in the current line-up. In the meantime, Kasher formed a side project, The Good Life.

Phew! I told you it wasn’t simple, but let’s get down to what’s really intriguing about Cursive: their records. After two well-received singles, “Disruption (1996 Saddle Creek)” and “Sucker and Dry” (1997 Zero Hour), they released their debut, Such Blinding Stars for Shining Eyes came out (1997 Crank!), an angsty but artfully restrained album of dramatic and emotionally raw songs. Kasher’s tortured vocal, whether it’s wail or whisper, creates an exquisite tension with the prominent, melodic basslines, angular guitars and powerhouse drums that swell and crescendo in ever-shifting dynamics. The follow-up, The Storms of Early Summer: Semantics of Song (1998 Saddle Creek) -- released after the band broke up -- is a self-reflective collection of brilliantly crafted songs that touch on themes of frustration and the limitations of communication. The songs are cleverly structured, with morphing time signatures and tempos, showcasing a group of wildly skilled and literate musicians. Domestica (2000 Saddle Creek) is Tim Kasher’s personal break-up record (written about his recent divorce), and the emotional intensity is only enhanced by the oddness and intricacy of the compositions.

The Ugly Organ (2003 Saddle Creek) is a tormented exploration of doomed love, sex and artistic ennui. With Gretta Cohn’s soaring cello lines adding a fuller and more melodramatic element, this album is an intense, sprawling affair, both accomplished and immensely satisfying. The moods are various, with songs like the jagged, harrowing “Art is Hard,” and the theatrical “Bloody Murder” meshing hanging together perfectly, and the album closes on a more ethereal (but no less miserable) note with “Staying Alive.”  In between albums, Cursive released The Difference Between Houses and Homes (2005 Saddle Creek), a compilation of previously released and out-of-print singles. The next LP, Happy Hollow (2006 Saddle Creek) won the band critical acclaim, with accolades from Rolling Stone, Spin, and Alternative Music Press among others. Verging on being a concept album, it’s an explosive investigation of religion and small town life: angry, inquisitive, honest and intelligent. The themes are heated and outraged, the riffs angular and jagged and the compositions sublimely unobvious.

The next record peers into the question of what is adulthood in Mama, I’m Swollen (2009 Saddle Creek). The mood is still tormented, but musically this album is more subdued and airy than the previous releases. The departure of drummer Clint Schnase possibly tamed some of the aggressiveness, but Kasher’s lyrics are still as cutting and genuinely pissed-off as before, and the music is as indefinable as ever. Like everything else about them -- it’s complicated. Genres are now so specified and splintered that it’s impossible to classify a multi-faceted band like Cursive. The only way to begin is to listen, and their extensive body of work provides tons of opportunity for that. And listen well; it will pay off enormously. However, the probing lyrics, unflinching themes, dynamic ebbs and flows and inventive structures will only deepen the enigma — thankfully.

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