When you're a little kid, cursive handwriting seems like such an arcane, esoteric thing: Its strange and indecipherable loops and swirls reduce words to fluid mystery, some secret code shared by grown-ups. By the time you actually reach adulthood, cursive looks juvenile, even quaint -- the hormone-inked scrawl of impetuous pubescence. Cursive, the band, drifts somewhere between lowercase naivete and spell-checked disenchantment, a chiaroscuro of innocence and regret.
Hailing from the unlikely musical mecca of Omaha, Cursive is the veteran of a scene that counts among its constituents indie-rock big shots like Bright Eyes and the Faint, but shares little musical turf with its upstart neighbors. Although often compared to Fugazi, Cursive's use of almost prog-like theatrical narrative is more reminiscent of Fugazi's artier brethren Shudder to Think and Smart Went Crazy. Singer/guitarist Tim Kasher's lyrics read like the random notebook ramblings of a tortured teenage coffeehouse poet. The first song on the disc is titled "Excerpts From Various Notes Strewn Around the Bedroom of April Connolly, Feb. 24, 1997"; funneled through the fluttery croon that could belong to an eerie, post-hardcore Robert Smith, Kasher's words assume the injured air of a hypersensitive adolescent. When he sings "Jealousy/Am I not yours?" it's hard to know if he's addressing the actual object of his affection or the demon of jealousy itself. Tempering this is a certain fuck-worn wisdom, fractured love stitched up with scar tissue: "Valentine, I want to feel your hips pressed up against mine/We'll push into each other -- love's alive/It might be fleeting but it's ours and it's tonight."
Cursive's instrumental arrangements are similarly high-strung. Cellist Gretta Cohn, introduced as a full member on the band's 2001 Burst and Bloom EP, saws her catgut with all the subtlety of a lumberjack, only to drop down to a soft shiver during lulls of breathless suspense. Bass, drums and guitar are double knotted with serpentine tension, wringing the passion out of every beat, note and syllable. Melodies aren't played so much as implied, somewhat like that nagging tingle of a phantom limb. There is a foreshadowing of dark atonality lurking at the edge of every verse, but 8 Teeth to Eat You flirts with this dissonance without ever fully succumbing to it.
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Eastern Youth, the Japanese group with which Cursive splits this disc, is as technically accomplished as is it is unremarkable. The band's four-song contribution reeks of disinfected emo, a sterilized and Band-Aided version of Cap'n Jazz's lacerated jangle. It's sad to see the treacly strains of post-Jimmy Eat World slush-core already infiltrating other cultures. Fortunately, Eastern Youth does have a knack for earnest, tuneful songwriting. Cursive, however, definitely comes out sounding far more inventive and evocative, taking shaky-handed indie-rock scribbling and working it into a thing of calligraphic beauty.