Cursive, Beach Slang and Slowbird Live @ Neumos
February 14, 2015
By Eugene Buonaccorsi
The odd poetry of a Valentine’s Day show. While the holiday is an invented facade of meaning that exists to promote spending, the music at Neumos February 14 was heartfelt and raw in a way that greeting card Cupids and boxed chocolates can’t capture.
Slow Bird are natives of the Pacific Northwest and their shoegazing, dramatic indie rock is music for rainy days and pensive thoughts.
At Neumos, the dynamics were cranked up to the point where they filled the room. Vocalist Jennae Quisenberry has pipes in the vein of pop’s more baroque leading women — Florence Welch and Lorde are two that come to mind – and her crooning tones resonated immovably over thick feedback and loose, minimalist drumming.
It was a performance full of swelling noise, more something to be absorbed than participated in, and Quisenberry’s voice and keyboard against the backdrop of Matt Street and Joshua Dore’s carefully planned instrumentals made for an intoxicating start to the evening.
Beach Slang are brimming with the excitement of a band about to hit it big. The self-described “bunch of punks from Philadelphia” play songs about youth and love, telling stories that anyone can relate to and understand. (Even the jacket to their 2014 7”, Cheap Thrills On A Dead End Street, reads “We are all lovers, liars, misfits, livers, junkies, poets, lunatics and heroes. That’s what I write about — Us.”) The band’s songs are romantic and nostalgic without the nauseating kitsch of either.
Frontman James Alex embodied all the angst and joy of the band’s music as he alternated between leans into the microphone, and spastic flails across the stage. Whenever he addressed the crowd it was with goofy humility, once claiming “I still always feel like that kid in high school who ate lunch alone.” Beach Slang just signed to Polyvinyl, and their musicianship is more reflective of that trajectory than one that says punk has to sound sloppy and careless. Drummer JP Flexner was a flurry of limbs, pulling off speedy parts with remarkable ease. His hard hitting captured the wild drive of Beach Slang’s songs, and the band visibly surged when he really laid into his kit, making him into a locus of activity. The other three members carried wistful melodies and power chords on their guitars through tracks like “American Girls and French Kisses” and the beautifully wanting closer “Punk or Lust.” Then, through feedback, Alex gave a parting cry of “We’re Beach Slang from Philly enjoy the rest of your fucking lives,” and that was that.
The pull of a Cursive concert — given the verbosity and general schtick of expansive and obscure plot lines in their albums — is a voyeuristic sense of bearing witness. It’s one thing to watch a band step on stage and mechanically play the notes they originally wrote. It’s quite another to watch musicians who are wrapped up in the meta-fiction of re-enacting and re-living their stories. Singers who are angry when their characters are angry are truly experiencing the real and “generalizable” feelings that any concept-based or fantastically narrated music is trying to convey. Attending a Cursive concert is an implicit search for the latter.
This tour is a celebration of the re-issue of 2003’s The Ugly Organ, which brings up not only questions about the songs’ persisting relevance, but the current state of Cursive’s career. Is this a band acting like former versions of themselves or one that has grown into new potential through revisiting these songs?
Tim Kasher’s candid style of writing and elaborate storytelling are the foci of Cursive’s identity. Moments like his description of a fictional daughter in “Sierra,” with the lines “I’m ready to settle down now / so get that man out of my bed,” give him a bard-like electricity. However, when the band broke out “Sierra” (and threw roses into the crowd) during their encore, the heft and intrigue of the story was secondary to the violent energy of the performance.
The band’s distance from any kind of posturing gave them the freedom to take pleasure in revisiting older songs, as evidenced by the dedicated drama of “Butcher: The Song.” Even auxiliary tracks like the thundering “Big Bang” – from 2006’s Happy Hollow – seemed isolated from their place in the band’s career and instead existed as moments created onstage.
In light of speculations about the worth of the band’s output post-Ugly Organ, it’s clear that the album cemented Cursive’s name in the indie rock lexicon for good reason. As they broke out track after track their seminal album grew back to form. Through its highest points (“Art is Hard,” “The Recluse”) and into a B-side from a Saddle Creek Records compilation (“Excerpts From Various Notes Strewn Around the Bedroom of April Connolly, Feb. 24, 1997”) Kasher and co. seemed comfortable and intrigued by their role in representing their master work.
Ted Stevens was virtuosic in his role as co-narrator. Settled stage left, he moodily added vocals to Organ’s interludes and took lead at times as well. He is often presented as less of a focal point than Kasher, but is just as much of a vector for the band’s power.
Across the stage the individual performers locked in to each other, perhaps most noticeably during the horror-dirge of “Harold Weathervein” as Megan Siebe’s cello whispered broodingly to Stevens’ voice and bassist Matt Maginn’s guitar before building into syncopation from Cully Symington on drums.
Given The Ugly Organ’s historic aura, Cursive’s nuanced performance was less of a hesitant re-creation than a leveled-up rendition. A “look what we can do now” that revitalized their best work and showed they can still invest in the album’s powerful stories. As for the maudlin tones’ juxtaposition with Valentine’s Day, the band appropriately mocked the holiday, handing out roses and boxes of Sweethearts between songs about pained relationships and bizarre love affairs.
There is a somewhat somber tone accompanying this tour, due to the fact that The Ugly Organ is no longer the “now” for Cursive. Nonetheless, touring lineup and age of material aside, as Kasher fell to his knees in the fading encore noise of “Staying Alive,” there was a sense of legacy that felt as alive as ever.
- I’m Not Domestica: New Cursive Album Suffers from it’s Own Narcissistic Tendencies
- Adult Film: Ben’s Still Horny for Tim Kasher
- His Pain is Our Gain: Ben Allen on Tim Kasher’s Monagamy