If Kasher truly is at his best when he’s at his worst, we should all hope he stays angry.
Doug Fir Lounge, Portland, OR
“I’m at my best when I’m at my worst,” Cursive frontman Tim Kasher sang on “From the Hips,” the Mama, I’m Swollen song they chose to close their Doug Fir Lounge performance on. He’s right: the band’s best work happens when Kasher – who uses the band, now in its 20s, as his means for effectively screaming out his angst – has a bitter fire in his gut. Last year’s Vitriola signalled a return to form for the band, which felt toothless for a short stretch; 2009’s Mama, I’m Swollen was an okay-but-not-great romp, while 2012’s I Am Gemini was largely forgettable). They emerged from their recording hiatus with the menacing, bass and cello-heavy Vitriola, full of the kind of venom that made albums like Domestica and The Ugly Organ so thrilling to listen to.
Seeing Cursive perform adds another layer to the music, which fundamentally changes how their music can be processed. Kasher, like Saddle Creek labelmate Conor Oberst, draws much of his power from not taking his own anger all that seriously. If you, like me, are an aging Cursive fan, this helps to make lyrics like “Get on that cross, that’s all you’re good for” (“The Martyr”) or “My ego’s like my stomach/ It keeps shittin’ what I feed it” feel less melodramatic, and more like the work of an emotional man who’s trying to simply cope with his angst. When he’s not singing, he can be observed playing guitar while chewing gum, an act that would signal a lack of give-a-shit if he wasn’t still incredibly good at what he does. Despite his career in shouting, he also still sounds fantastic, able to nail the desperate, howled shouts of “AND THERE’S STILL A HOLE! WHERE THE PHONE WAS THROWN! IT’S GROW! ING! AS WE! SPEAK!” of Domestica opener “The Casualty” with a fury that almost makes you forget that the 26-year-old who originally hollered that lyric is now 44-years-old.
The rest of the band, too, is wonderfully tight, managing to convey all the chaos that makes songs like “A Gentleman Caller,” Happy Hollow’s monstrously messy “Big Bang,” and Vitriola (and set) opener “Free to Be or Not to Be You and Me” with ease, which saves the band’s music from sounding too cacophonous in the small space. I was lucky enough to catch the band in the same space four years ago, as they gave The Ugly Organ the 10th anniversary treatment it deserved, and it’s likely the Doug Fir, ever a favorite of the bands who play there, is the best possible venue to help to translate their chaos effectively. To wit, bass monster/assistant yeller Matt Maginn’s blistering basslines come through perfectly in the space, an absolute necessity for this band. The usual roster was bolstered with incoming cellist Megan Seibe, rocking an electric cello, who spent a hefty amount of the set with a gigantic smile plastered on her face, as though she couldn’t believe her dumb luck that she’s been pulled into Cursiveland.
The setlist was the best possible for a band with as many fan favorites as they do, touching on just about every album in their arsenal (skipping only their 1997 debut, Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes). They leaned heavily on Vitriola, but were careful to only play a couple songs in a row before diving into something older, so as not to leave the old-heads checking their watches in boredom. What’s comforting, though, is that Vitriola is strong enough that even a two-song run of new songs felt natural, the frenzied crowd as pumped for “Ouroboros” as they were for Ugly Organ thrasher “A Gentleman Caller” directly after. Swollen and Gemini received the least attention, wisely treating us to “This House Alive” and “From the Hips,” perhaps the safest options from the pair.
Though the band had a two-album stretch of so-so material, this show felt like proof that the band have roared back to life as the band people fell in love with on those older record. The faithful – who showed up to thrash along to the songs from their new record – confirmed the band’s renewed power, as the packed crowd eagerly shouted the new batch of songs back at Kasher & Co. alongside even their oldest material. It might be gauche to root for the foul mood of a musician, but if Kasher truly is at his best when he’s at his worst, we should all hope he stays angry.