Tales From the Script

With its fourth and most compelling album, Cursive walks it like it writes it.

It's a muggy August night in Omaha, and outside the weathered Sokol Auditorium, kids line the sidewalk like a string of firecrackers waiting to go off. It's kind of a weird setting for a big rock show: a snoozing residential neighborhood full of gas stations, dusty signs and weeds poking up out of the blacktop. The auditorium itself is a creaky structure of beaten brick that looks as if it's hosted a dozen too many Shriners conventions and gymnastics meets.

The kids, though, don't notice all that. They're here to see a band, the cream of this season's bumper crop of hometown heroes: the quintet known as Cursive.

Opening for Cursive is Denver's own Planes Mistaken for Stars, swinging through Nebraska on the final stop of a Midwest tour. After a short but rousing set by tour mates End Game, the four guys in Planes hit the stage like a hand grenade. But even in the midst of shucking their breastbones and slopping heart and guts all over the well-dressed, unsuspecting Omaha kids, the bandmembers seem oddly subdued. This is the last show they will ever play with departing bassist Jamie Drier, and the mood is solemn.

Written hard and put up wet: Tim Kasher (from left), 
Ted Stevens, Gretta Cohn, Matt Maginn and Clint 
Schnase of Cursive.
Written hard and put up wet: Tim Kasher (from left), Ted Stevens, Gretta Cohn, Matt Maginn and Clint Schnase of Cursive.

Backstage between sets, Gared O'Donnell of Planes and Tim Kasher, leader of Cursive, drink beer and joke about the show. This isn't the first time they've played together; their bands have shared the bill many times over the past few years, and even tonight, the idea of a tandem tour is being discussed. As if to punctuate it, O'Donnell keeps giving Kasher bear hugs and chanting with a toothy grin, "This guy's the limit!" -- appparently some extremely clever play on the phrase "The sky's the limit." Kasher laughs back. Minutes later he takes the stage wearing a plain white T-shirt upon which is scrawled in all caps: "THIS GUY'S THE LIMIT."

Cursive's set is, quite simply, flawless. Guitarist Ted Stevens seems reserved, almost polite, as he gouges shuddering melodies and splintered rhythms out of his equipment. Bassist Matt Maginn and drummer Clint Schnase spin whispers and whip up roars. The outfit's newest conscript, Gretta Cohn, flourishes the bow of her cello like the tip of a feather -- that is, when she's not brandishing it like a hacksaw. Kasher coos and slashes his way through songs from the group's fourth and latest full-length, the almost universally lauded concept album The Ugly Organ.

Released in March this year, The Ugly Organ is just another notch in the belt of the Omaha scene -- a small yet outrageously hyped circle of bands revolving around Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, a young man heralded by many lazy (and apparently deaf) journalists as "the Bob Dylan of his generation." Saddle Creek -- the independent label that houses both Bright Eyes and Cursive as well as serving as the spiritual home base for the whole Omaha cabal -- has been the subject of recent writeups in Time, Entertainment Weekly, the New York Times, Spinand Rolling Stone. And although it's the elder band, Cursive has been riding for years now in the wake of Bright Eyes' monumental acclaim -- not that Kasher is complaining. Not really, anyway.

"For as much as I love Bright Eyes and really support them, it bothers me that Conor's overwhelming success can almost be seen as kind of taking away my ability or my right to move forward on my own," Kasher offers. "It's like the path has already been laid out for me now. I'm really the type of person who likes to lay out his own path."

No kidding: Kasher lays paths like Hannibal made marches. After forming Cursive in 1995 and releasing two albums, Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes and The Storms of Early Summer: the Semantics of Song, the singer/guitarist had already cemented his mix of cornfield emo and highbrow rock. A year-long hiatus and a lineup shuffle followed, resulting in the release of Cursive's artistic breakthrough, 2000's Domestica. It's a scary record, ravaged by heartbreak and dissonance, both musical and emotional. Ostensibly a tragedy about failed cohabitation, Kasher howls lines like "Sweetie, the moon has raped me/It's left its seeds like a tomb inside me" while the music broods and churns like storm clouds overhead.

But if Domestica was a creepy little one-act, The Ugly Organis the Grand Guignol. Bound by a morbid cohesion, it's a full-on, post-punk opera replete with stage directions and a cast of characters that includes the composer himself, who steps out from behind the script and onto the stage every so often to comment on his own macabre production. "You gotta sink to swim/Immerse yourself in rejection," Kasher sings, sounding like a psychotic drama coach giving lessons in method acting. "Regurgitate some sorry tale/About a boy who sells his love affairs/You gotta fake the pain/You better make it sting/You're gonna break a leg/When you get on stage/And they scream your name/'Oh, Cursive is so cool!'"

"Yeah, I'd say it's almost completely about myself," comments Kasher on his new album's rampant self-reference. "But I'm also taking a jab at songwriters and songwriting in general. It's kind of a dark way of trying to keep myself in check as a writer. I think that a lot of the songs can get away from you sometimes, and that's when you start writing bullshit. I tried to catch myself on this record. I remember writing batches of lyrics, then coming back to them a couple days later and being like, 'This is just totally dishonest crap.' I can't stand that.

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