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Cursive’s latest is anything but ugly

James Costa | Tuesday, February 12, 2008

“The Ugly Organ” is a remarkably multi-layered and beautiful effort at a concept album. Tim Kasher and his band Cursive construct a powerful look at the clashing influences of consumer culture, lust and art through the experiences and adventures of Kasher.

Written and recorded after Kasher divorced his first wife, “The Ugly Organ” is a portrayal of life without the person that was once the center of his world. It’s an interesting follow-up to the band’s previous album, “Domestica.” Also a concept record of sorts, that album dealt with the unfixable entropy of Kasher’s failing marriage and the frenzied heartbreak that often accompanies such a painful experience.

“The Ugly Organ” uses two basic premises for the term of the ugly organ. First, it addresses the male difficulty in living without physical gratification and the shame in being controlled by the whims of an organ that symbolizes not the power of love and affection, but fevered lust and possible sin.

The second meaning refers to the ugly organ that embodies the music machine. Since Kasher makes music for a living, he must recreate his misery on an album in order to make the money he needs to survive.

In order to tie the presence of the organ into the fabric of the record, recurring organ figures often erupt mid-song into the arrangement as a means of distressing the singer.

To open the album, Kasher offers a couplet, “And now we proudly present/ Songs perverse and songs of lament.” It’s a rather brilliant ploy to put the band ahead of whatever the critics might be thinking from the get-go, proving that the group anticipates the critics and is already beyond their sharp judgments.

Kasher ups the ante for the record in the track “Art is Hard,” which seems intended for him and the band: “Cut it out / Your self inflicted pain / Is getting too routine / The crowds are catching on / To the self-inflicted song.”

The band grasps the way in which its songs come off and knows it must forge new ground or run the risk of being considered trite and unimportant.

Most of the songs begin with harsh and foreboding music, making the first few seconds often the most alien and difficult to listen to. Yet almost all the songs incorporate the rich and shadowy texture of the cello, slowing the music down to an almost lullaby-like whisper, and then picking it back up into a deafening rush of exhausted exhilaration and pain.

One of the few tracks that deviate from this theme is “A Gentleman Caller.” The song ends with a soft and classically emo last two minutes of voice over pulsing cello as Kasher sings, “Whatever you need to make you feel / Like you’ve been the one behind the wheel / The sunrise is just over that hill / The worst is over / Whatever I said to make you think / That loves the religion of the weak / This morning we love like weaklings / The worst is over.” It’s a rare moment of acceptance of loss and renewal on an album that relies heavily on the disaster and dysfunction of love within life.

The record grows unexpectedly on the listener. It’s a lot like reading Kerouac’s “The Subterranean,” except that all you have to do is sit back and listen.