Cursive - Dorothy Dreams of Tornados
Cursive - Rise Up! Rise Up!
Date> 25 September 2006
Subject> Wake Up it's Time for Work
Hey there, Patrick...
I was thinking about a few things on the way home from work today; one of them being the power that words have to clue us in to new music. In particular I'm reminded of My Morning Jacket who had never interested either of us until "Z" came out. Even though they had other records out (and we've listened to some since) there was never anything in any of their reviews that prompted either of us to check them out. But "Z" was something different. Out of the My Morning Jacket CDs, it sounds the most like one we'd be into. So thank goodness somebody reviewed that record with enough sense to fill in the appropriate Jeff-and-Patrick buzzwords.
I was also thinking about how sometimes even a "bad" review will use strange terms and phrases that will pique our interests as well. The quickest example I can think of is the "Castlevania guitar tones" on the latest Mars Volta record. Even if the reviewer is using the term negatively, it evokes something positive for us.
So here I am, on day 7 of a nearly incessant Cursive binge and I want to write the review for the latest album, "Happy Hollow," that makes you want to check it out... that lends a pair of fresh ears and new pair of specs. (One's that don't earn the ire of your supervisors, perhaps?) Because beyond if you even end up liking the record, let alone the band, I think this record explores a lot of ideas that you and I have talked about before (and even written songs about.) And maybe it's just me, but I love it when someone 'established' has similar ideas as I do... especially if those ideas are relevant and important. And beyond the lyrical and meta-meanings of the record, I think it sounds absolutely brilliant. (More on that later.)
I try pretty hard not to be a typical art-rocker or a closed-minded rockist, as you know. So concept albums are almost always hit-or-miss for me. I have no love affair for "Tommy" or "In Search of the Lost Chord," but if a good album comes along labeled as "concept," I'll admit it. (Note: my closet love affair with Coheed and Cambra.)
But Cursive's "Happy Hollow" is a concept record unlike all others. There's some more typical demarkations like the bookending musical themes on the record and repeated lyrics and melodies throughout the songs, but most of it feels like a good dramatic play or movie. Rather than forcing Cursive songs into some conceptual mold in order to make them fit on the record, the band finds fertile and plentiful material in their own self-imposed set-up.
I'm not sure if it's because I was forced to read and watch it so many times, but for some reason I hate "Our Town."
So it pains me to compare "Happy Hollow" to it, but it's the best I can do... maybe "Our Town" crossed with some French New Wave director who focuses on a few characters in depth rather that telling the story of one archetypal hero... (Can you think of a good example?) But like a genius director, the stories of all these characters combine to form a meaning, a message, a story, bigger than the individual pieces themselves.
The cover art is the first clue. Referencing old postcards, the art depicts an anywhere-town that is desolate, boring and completely run-of-the-mill. At first I wasn't sure I'd be able to get into this record as much as "The Ugly Organ" because I can relate to playing in a band, but I wasn't sure about relating to small town life.
But "Happy Hollow" is more about the delusions and games that people play in this small town in order to keep going on. (And I've found them relatable to the point of obsession.) I suppose I can relate especially to the struggle of growing up with certain religious truths presented as solutions and never having the chance to objectively see them as diversions.
In a lot of ways, this record is about the "culture war" between the Red and Blue states... between the University and the Church, Science and Religion. It's about "Normal Life" and the meaning of existence. There are tales of alienated priests so human and well-rendered... beyond charicature of simple black-and-white. All the characters in Happy Hollow are complex and dimensional. There are tales of girls who's boyfriends are off at war, grown men doubting their faith, and head on confrontation with "intelligent design." (And the Wizard of Oz flourishes actually work rather well...) And while there isn't a real story arc, listening to the album in its entirety feels complete... like you're ready for a cigarette, a sigh, and muttering, "Well, that was a good flick."
You know, maybe it's not a concept album after all. Maybe it's just a good album. Maybe albums are supposed to be more than a collection of singles... maybe they should be more like a "body of work"... but "Happy Hollow" feels more like a city-sized mural than a portfolio or gallery show. The ambition and scope are breath-taking.
And what really brings it all together is the music itself. While I was bummed at first that there would be no cello on this record, (Cello! You have a bass!) I soon found myself at home in the almost free-jazz horn arrangements. Cursive has this thing where they load up the beats with like 10 guitars, a bass and snare hit, and now, bizarre horn arrangements. If for nothing else, check out "Happy Hollow" just for the way the songs sound. There really isn't anyone else out there doing this... and if there's anything close I want to know all about it. And the songs on this record have this off-kilter gospel vibe that I can't quite place. The only thing that comes close is Lord Have Mercy On Us. It's loud and powerful and full of angst, but it feels like gospel. It's like the flip-side of gospel... post-apocalyptic gospel as I like to say.
But there's also some slide guitar that brings out the real Americana elements to the music. And of course that only adds to further the concept of small town life. But then of course there's the lyrical content atop those familiar tones... and the songs never sound like period pieces or revivalism... they feel painfully like now. (And now I think I might be repeating myself...)
So I know there are segments of our musical-taste Venn diagrams
that don't cross, but I'd like to move Cursive out of that section and into the intersection... at least "Happy Hollow." I wouldn't go to all this trouble for nothing; I think you'd be missing out if you didn't at least give it a listen... maybe look up some lyrics online...
"Rocking chairs of disenchantment, green grass of envy and malice - our salad days, living in Happy Hollow."