Cursive – The Ugly Organ

It had not been long since a friend of mine shared with me his long running interest in the oft strange realm of conceptual musical theatre. A “recluse away from commerce” he called it – a twisted distant land where characters of “natural realism” are enthralled in anecdotes of structured story telling and on-stage brouhahas. Successfully skirting my vain attempts at defiance, Andy Lygreen had finally convinced me to visit his humble New York dig and ultimately immerse myself in this “cultural enlightenment” that only he could show me. The trip over was spent with feelings of slight trepidation, Andy had been very vague with the details but told me to trust him – the last time that happened, a group of us ended up in some dairy farm knee deep in cow shit. Nonetheless, when I arrived at his humble pad there was little time to waste, after a brief encounter with what was presumed to be dinner; we headed off into arty unknowns.

The venue was crammed in between two very suspect looking electronic repair stores on some forgettable even numbered street. Its wood paneled walls stood in support of the steel hinged door; overlooked by a creaky old sign that proudly displayed the words ‘Club Saddle Creek’ – the feeling of regret grew quickly – but not before Andy smugly announced that this is where the concepts of art and music collided in one glorious union. On a dirty side panel was a crudely done poster with tonight’s performance scribbled in bold: ‘The Ugly Organ. Performed by Cursive.’

Upon entering the club we received what I supposed was the performance guide – an eloquently crafted booklet adorned with spindly organ keys on gangly green surfacing, which Andy immediately commented that I had better not lose as it contained the performance’s accompanying text and stage directions. While leafing through the booklet, Andy wandered off somewhere, and in an attempt at “remaining cool” I decided to at least pretend seedy New York clubs were my norm. The sardine-like atmosphere was choking, there had to be some code violation going on here, but everyone seemed mildly comfortable in their seats.

As the lights dimmed, five seemingly average folks wandered on stage to a chorus of warm welcome amid random screams of teen-ary delight, “Tim! … Tim! … Kash money!” But just before normalcy set in, a bizarre character in grotesque costume, equipped with organ, took center stage and proceeded to play the quirkiest of introductions – a full minute it seemed, just before the troupe burst into the wildly frantic opening number. The lively beginning, festooned with a distinctly animated cello and crass vocal work was the act’s fervent welcome – I thumbed frantically through the booklet; ‘Some Red Handed Sleight of Hand’ as it was called, a self effacing introduction of drippy couplets; “And now, we proudly present / songs perverse and songs of lament / A couple hymns of confession / and songs that recognize our sick obsessions” – a mocking of itself – a truly strange, yet clear lamentation of the entire performance.

Without a break in step, the second act began quickly as the first ended – once again with its words of personal degradation and mischievous jabs, the frenetic musical flailing and cello brew proves precise to its shrewd observations; “Try, and fail, and try again / Keep churning out the hits / ‘til it’s all the same old shit.” Precisely, a croon only an act named “Art is Hard” could elicit.

And as if to follow its own unassuming lines, the acts “The Recluse” and “Butcher the Song” coarsely ramble through bitter words of sexual escapades, confusion and lust drenched in certain depravity – backed once again by this quintet orchestra – vile in words and just as wicked in their musical manipulation of fast, loud, quiet and soft. At this point, the senses had been well worked – exercised to amazing extents and ambitious extremes – it was time to recuperate (bathroom break).

Returning from this brief retreat, after again, madly trying to pin point the acts current location (in the booklet), Andy finally entered a level of involvement, asking just how I, so far, perceive this performance. I told him that to this point, I had never encountered such bewildering, strangely madcap theatre; it had been a uniquely scholarly experience – which was met with no surprise from him. He then confessed that while the upcoming act, “A Gentleman Caller” was seamless and brazenly superb, the performance tails off slightly afterwards. Alas, it was no real concern to me; I seldom venture into such vividly artful orchestration and could only perceive the outcome once the entirety had been digested.

Right on the money he was, “A Gentleman Caller” is a terrifically boisterous affair; lucid tales of infidelity carved out crisply once again in cello stringing, rough and tumble riffs and vivid vocalization. It remains raucous until its bittersweet ending of painful realization and fleeting comfort – waxed in melody and dulcet savagery; “Whatever I said to make you think / that love’s the religion of the weak / this morning we love like weaklings / the worst is over.”

And like a champion race horse casually strolling to the finish, this largely grand performance makes its way to a faintly hobbled end. As the final few acts make their appearance; the stabbing “Bloody Murderer”, the floaty séance of “Sierra” and the seemingly endless “Staying Alive”, it is clear that Andy has been through this before – he seems slightly bored – but upon discovering my still enthralled mug, he appears to take comfort in such simplicity. This conceptual self-confliction is no unwelcome stranger – we’ve seen it before – but Cursive have taken these inklings and immersed it into their own bizarre languishing that becomes intensely clear in the entirety of The Ugly Organ.

Leaving the club, I can’t help but feel delightfully tranquil. There are no injections of adrenaline, no dying desire to fulfill sweated thirst or aching body parts, just willful analytical satisfaction. To someone like Andy, who quests to continually fulfill his need for artful intellect, the jaunt to places like Club Saddle Creek is regular refuel; he feeds on little else musically and theatrically. Be it that it may seem a little condescending or pretentious, I feel that his desire to be challenged by the art he experiences easily rubs off on me, as it should. For now, I think I will just revel in The Ugly Organ – a well conceived work of self-indulgent, conceptual, emotionally deconstructive faux-rock (‘rock’ is such a generic term to use) that is but surely the next chapter in Cursive’s eminent history. There are no answers – other than geographical excuses – I can give Andy to why I had not been to a Cursive production before. The only answer I can give seems painfully fitting; it is better a little later than much, much later.

(Saddle Creek Records)