Smile Politely

Cursive is so cool

He wanted to play all night. The mood was right, the air was thick with sweat and revelry. He could sing until sunrise about death, regret, and the worst decisions he’d made maybe in his life, and they would have kept smiling right back at him. Singing along. He wanted to go all night.  “But we have an 80s night to tend to,” he said.

There was a wry smile upon Tim Kasher’s face, a potent mixture of resigned disappointment and veteran cheekiness. He knows the way this business works; he’s an old dog playing old tricks.  Aged angst for the millennial set … And it works (wonders). They wanted him to go all night.

I’ll have the 6-piece with Sweet and Sour.

Conduits piqued my curiosity going in, not knowing who they were or anything about them.  Later in the evening, after they played, when Cursive was onstage, I thought it was neat that their keys player was playing with Cursive. Or that Cursive was having him play with them. Yet again, ignorance made it interesting. Apparently Patrick (with whom I spoke outside over smokes and whiskey fumes) is in Cursive properly as they are now a 5-piece (again, after Gretta Cohn’s regrettable departure) and Conduits is his other band in Omaha.

During their set hours before, however, Conduits did not play like the younger brother of the cool kid who got dragged to the party because Mom said so. They played like pros opening a big show. And they opened it perfectly: without ado, seamless segues between tracks, pitch-perfect performance, and presence. There were six sprawled across the stage, a huge sound with huge feeling aided in no small part by the bassist switching between bass and keys throughout — although her work on the bass guitar was most mesmerizing. Vocals shimmered over the top of tremolo picked delay vs. indie riff guitars, analog 70s synths and rocksteady backbeats laid a bed of funky dreampop heaven. They used odd time signatures, but maintained a smooth pop feel. They played in major keys, but made it sound sad. It was a very impressive start to the evening, for when I turned around expecting the same mostly-empty Highdive I saw when I made my way to the front of the stage, suddenly the room was much more densely populated.

Cymbals Ate Guitars

For some reason, I assumed this band had two guitarists and assumed that Matthew Whipple, their bassist, was their lead singer. But Joe (whose resemblance to Joe Strummer isn’t lost on this writer) sang, albeit almost unintelligibly through all the slapback and massive decibels, and played two near-identical Fender Jazzmasters and thus won my heart. That second guitar that didn’t exist? Keys. Two keyboards set up to swell and sear. Think Silversun Pickups but less hipster. Wait, Staten Island vs. Silverlake … too close to call. At any rate, these boys blew me away with the live show. I was already sold on them, my heart stolen by their recent effort Lenses Alien via repeats and further digging into words and strings. I suppose I presumed more than one guitar because despite only one being played live, their love for 90s guitar rock is fairly obvious. From their recordings, one might place them closer to contemporaries No Age or Real Estate, or even almost-OGs The Shins — but live, this outfit ripped shit up. They were loud, energetic, and really rocked. They made me realize that Real Estate was a pop band. No rock in ’em. Which is fine, I have that cassette in my car for lazy Sunday drives. But I have a strong feeling that Cymbals’ next record might be get-me-a-ticket kind of driving music. Even at mid-tempo. Such energy!

He is Gemini

Following my string of assumptions, I figured Cursive would play most if not all the new record with the hits interspersed appropriately. Not true. They did indeed start the set with the first track off I Am Gemini, and closed the night with the end of it; but what happened in between was a wonderful combination of surprise and delight.

It’s difficult to believe Tim Kasher when he sings the line “those breakdown days are done,” in “This House Alive.”  Before I even begin to try to explain that sentence, let me contextualize my experience with this new record, and my decade-long relationship with this songwriter and his band.  As I drunkenly and embarrassingly told bassist Matt Maginn after the show, I downloaded “The Martyr” and “Stars” the same day in 2000 on Kazaa. One can imagine how impactful that day was on a 15-year-old guitarist stuck in Kentucky. Over the next four years I overdosed on the thrash guitars of The Storms of Early Summer: Semantics of Song and Burst and Bloom, and vicariously ripped my guts out to the ego-imploding confessions of Domestica and The Ugly Organ. Cursive’s next two records had no appeal to me; either because Kasher was writing songs about things other than writing songs, or because I wasn’t a teenager anymore. So admittedly, the reason I bought the new record was that I knew they were coming to town, not because I thought it would be any good.

I brought the LP home with me, put it on immediately, and proceeded not be impressed in the slightest. The big problem here was that I actually wasn’t paying attention to the record whatsoever; I was busy doing other things, relegating the band’s hard work to background music — which honestly is how Happy Hollow and Mama, I’m Swollen (but for “What Have I Done”) yet seem best for. My ears would perk up at certain sections of the record. I’d cock my head like a puppy and wonder what thought process brought them to making these musical decision.

Fast forward

The night of the show I was apprehensive going into a show I expected to depress me. So I thought “what the hell,” and spun I Am Gemini one last time. This time, I followed along exactly with the novel little playbook in which the lyrics are printed. And then I understood. This is old Tim Kasher. And he’s yelling at and pining for young Tim Kasher. The Gemini were the sons of Zeus, brought into being by rape, separated by death of the mortal twin (Castor), yet ultimately reunited in the immortality of the night sky. This is Kasher, using the characters of a reformed criminal and an estranged pyromaniac brother who floats like a Faustian devil upon the shoulder, to represent his fear of returning to that place, that mode of purging, self-destructive confession. I had figured it out. “I think Tim just wanted to write another guitar record, man.” Thanks Matt. I’m an idiot.

Maybe I hit close to the mark with my ideas about his ideas. But during this show, those lyrics didn’t bring anyone down; by Jove, it was Bacchian. With whiskey supplied by the merch guy, impressions of Tim’s mother performed by Conduits’ drummer, an encore forced out of Kasher’s vocal chords, and an in-crowd throwdown of “Art Is Hard,” I can honestly say this show made me about as happy as those records helped me be sad in high school.

Standing stage left, I mostly heard Ted Stevens’ guitar during the set, which was wonderful. He took up Ian MacKaye’s mantle after Fugazi like no one in emo ever quite did. He’s a terribly talented player, and dominates the feel of the songs almost as much as the vocals. Their newest drummer is younger, and worked his ass off. I sank to the beat. Matt Maginn showed me shit I did not know —those harmonics he hit, especially on the old material, was some kind of Omaha magic. And Patrick busted out the trumpet when he wasn’t turning knobs on an old analog Korg that most triumphantly suited the last half of “A Gentlemen Caller,” making Cohn not as missed as one would expect. Perhaps the most astounding piece of performance that night was not how tight these old dudes remain, not how effortlessly Kasher preaches from the pulpit, but how not bored they were. They looked like road-worn warriors, but played like punk kids skipping a semester of high school to hit the road, a year of living dangerously. Tim Kasher played guitar solos. I don’t mean those bitchin riffs all throughout the early records, I mean straight up impromptu wailing and noodling. It was a joy to see.

By the end of the night there was barely room to maneuver to the front of the stage. To say it was an impressive crowd for a Monday night might be understatement. The bill was killer, everyone played their balls off, and the crowd was receptive and genuinely entertained throughout.

Oh, and I head-butted Tim Kasher.  Chock one more notch off my belt.

The Pygmalion Spring Show Series continues tomorrow night at 10:30 pm with Common Loon and Elsinore playing a free show at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

“The Martyr,” in all its glory.

Photos & video by Troy Stanger.

Set lists:


Shore Points
Hawk Highway (new)
And the Hazy Sea
Definite Darkness
Another Tunguska
Keep Me Waiting


This House Alive
Big Bang
A Gentleman Caller
The Cat And Mouse
A Red So Deep
The Sun And Moon
Driftwood: A Fairy Tale
We’re Going To Hell
(“This is a deep cut  about deep things,” quoth Kasher.)
The Martyr
Twin Dragon/Hello Skeleton
From The Hips
Sink To The Beat
Art Is Hard
Eulogy For No Name

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