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Cursive – The Ugly Organ

The Ugly Organ – a well conceived work of self-indulgent, conceptual, emotionally deconstructive faux-rock that is but surely the next chapter in Cursive’s eminent history.

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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)

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Interviews

Like a Hurricane: An Interview with Year of the Fist

Year of the Fist are a much needed short in the arm of rock music. We chat to vocalist/guitarist Squeaky.

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Oakland based rock n’ roll band Year of the Fist are the kind of the rock n’ roll band you can’t bring home to meet mom. Evoking the sounds made famous by labels like Sympathy for the Record Industry, Year of the Fist are “a hurricane of swirling rock n’ roll poundage”. Unrelenting and visceral, their music is the unforgiving wave in a sea of safe rock music; a sentiment best exemplified by their brand new full-length album, Revive Me. And like the title itself, Year of the Fist are a much-needed shot of energy; raw, no-frills, and urgent.

We caught up with guitarist and vocalist Squeaky, who, along with the band, have just returned from a short trek through California and Nevada to showcase their new album. We talk about the history of the band, their fantastic new record, Oakland, small-town shows, and rock n’ roll.

Congrats on the new record- reception has been positive to it (we loved it)- how do you all feel?

We are all very happy with the way the album turned out. The last year and a half working on felt like an eternity but it’s done and I am stoked.

How did the writing and recording for the record go? It sounds fantastic- did you self-produce or work with someone in the studio?

The album is self-produced and the recording was a multi-step and studio process.  We were lucky to work in some amazing studios with some terrific engineers.

Do you have a favorite song from the new record? Or maybe one you all love playing live in particular?

I believe I can speak for everyone when I say “Ghosts” is one of our favorites off this album to play live. And speaking for myself, “Red Lights Flash” is another one I really like playing. 

Revive Me is your third full length; what were some of the things you wanted to get done with this record- things maybe you learned from the two LPs prior?

It is actually of 2nd full length. In between the two, we released a 4 song EP.  To be honest, I always have an idea in my head on how I am going to approach something and it never works that way. There is always a curveball, an emotion, a gut feeling that pulls you a different direction. So I am trying to get better at going into something with no direction to be honest ….. we’ll see how that works out.

You are based in Oakland- are you guys all from the area and how did Year of the Fist come together?

Our lead guitarist, Katie, is the only member from the Bay Area. I am from the East Coast. Our drummer, Hal, is from the Mid-West and our bassist, Serge, is from Russia. Hal & I met on tour in different bands, I believe sometime in 2006. He lived in Washington and I was in California. Hal eventually moved down to Oakland and we started YOTF in 2011. We anticipated it being a 2 piece band but after writing the first few songs we knew that wasn’t going to be the case. I knew Katie from playing shows throughout the Bay Area,  so she jumped on board, then skip ahead 8 years, we found our bassist, Serge. We played with several bass players over the years but now I feel we have found our fit. Serge was one of us within minutes of meeting him.

Do you remember what your first experience with rock n’ roll was? Was it a show, something on the radio, a record, or a band?

I was raised in a rock n roll household so I don’t recall a 1st experience, my upbringing was the experience. As far as going to punk shows, I was living in Richmond, VA and I went to my first punk show at 12 or 13. I was immediately drawn to the energy. I was already playing guitar but after seeing a hundred punks packed into a tiny, sweaty club and feeding off the energy coming off the stage I knew I wanted to be the one on the stage.

What makes Oakland a good place for a rock n’ roll band? Is it the venues, the community?

Oakland has its ups and down with good punk venues to be honest. It seems we will have a ton of good rock venues for a few years and then it takes a nosedive for a few years. It’s tricky like that. Oakland is such a diverse city it keeps every band from being full of a bunch of white straight men. It’s a breath of fresh air.

And some of you pull double duty in multiple bands?

We sure do. Hal & I are in a 2 piece rock band called Cut-Rate Druggist while Katie has a solo project that goes by her name, Katie Cash, and a rock/funk band called Skip The Needle. Serge is the only smart one by not burning the candle at both ends.

You played a bunch of shows in July- across California and then to Nevada- what are some of the things you enjoy most about being able to play these songs live?

We just wrapped up that quick 4-day run and it was terrific. There is nothing like seeing people singing the words you wrote, seeing their body move to a particular part in a song that makes your body move the same way, to have someone tell you how much a song means to them. It is so therapeutic. It is the best shrink that I have ever had.

I used to live in Stockton; it was a tough place when I lived there. But it was always exciting to know bands stopped by (when they did)- how important it is to you guys to find new cities and towns to play in each tour?

Really? You lived in Stockton? What a small world!! 

I really enjoy playing smaller cities/towns. The crowd isn’t as jaded as big cities. I don’t mean that as an insult, hell, I am probably one of those jaded people. Living in a big city you can see awesome local and touring bands any day of the week, it gets taken for granted. When you go to a smaller city that has 2, maybe 1 rock show a month, people appreciate that you drove 4-6 hours to get there.

What are the plans for Year of the Fist for the rest of the year and beyond?

We have some light US touring in the fall along with playing FEST in Gainesville, FL. And maybe getting some rest!

Year of the Fist’s new album Revive Me is available now via Heart On Records.

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Reviews

Pretty Vicious – Beauty of Youth

Beauty of Youth is what happens when raw talent and a knack for writing great songs finds itself surviving the hype

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Pretty Vicious

The perils of industry hype and stardom have been unforgiving for many young bands. The brutal nature of the rock n’ roll whirlwind is both an inescapable thrill, and the overdose that has claimed the scalp of many. Welsh rock band Pretty Vicious are no stranger to the often destructive nature of record label glory and lofty expectations. The band members were mere teens (15-17) when they signed their mega-deal with Virgin EMI in 2015. What followed was a roller coaster ride of failed recording sessions and the burden of unmet expectations that come with signing big-money deals at such a young age. But the remarkable truth is, Pretty Vicious seem to have come out of the industry slog having survived their initial foray into the fire with an album that is quite a remarkable achievement.

Initially touted as the “next Oasis”, Pretty Vicious have thankfully shunned that tag and done away with writing the next Definitely Maybe for something more visceral. Beauty of Youth is what happens when raw talent and a knack for writing great songs finds itself surviving the hype. If Beauty Of Youth is a record signaling Pretty Vicious’ convalescence after their initial break down, then please, feed this medicine to all the bands.

There is no Oasis, but rather the furious, feverish unpredictability of rock music that we had seen with early Biffy Clyro, early Idlewild, packed with the dangerous uncertainty that came with The Libertines. It’s immediate too; from the raucous riff-heavy opener “These Four Walls” to the vagabond “What Could’ve Been”, much of the album channels frenzied palettes of distortion and beautiful noise. “Force of Nature” is a little Josh Homme, while “Someone Just Like You” is what Dave Grohl sounds like when he’s trying, but the album’s best moment is perhaps the gorgeous, slow-burning “Playing With Guns”. A song that’s composed of great wistful melodies that slowly incinerate the ears with infectious songwriting that makes Beauty Of Youth sound massive while being personal at the same time.

You can’t go past songs like “Move”, with its buzzsaw guitars and wall of energy, without thinking of all the best rock bands we’ve heard over the past decade. It’s got it all- to a T- but its urgency and hectic nature make it feel all the better. “Something Worthwhile” has got the bright lights and big stages of Glastonbury written all over it. And while their 2015 stint at the festival saw them on the “Introducing…” stage, this song is headlining main stage material.

It is quite an achievement to be as accomplished as Pretty Vicious at such a young age. Even more remarkable that they’ve survived the industry machine to release such a damn good debut album. Beauty of Youth is a composed, compelling, high energy debut that answers the question, “what became of the likely lads?”. They went on to write one of, if not the best, rock records of 2019.

(Big Machine / John Varvatos Records)

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