It's been a year since Seattle's own Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band played its first show at Neumo's, and since then, the band has managed to hit one important musical milestone: clearly defining its sound.
And it's a sound that's best described as organized pop chaos. At Neumo's last night, lead singer Benjamin Verdoes' distinct vocals were on display, his pitch undulating like Conor Oberst's on Fevers and Mirrors -- it moves up and down with each song's spastic, sonic guitars. He was backed by drums so heavy you could feel the beats inside your chest, pounding like an overactive heartbeat. It's the same sort of pop-infused, guitar-driven music that Cursive was making six years ago, around the release of the Ugly Organ, when the band became a critical darling.
Right now, MSHVB has energy and passion behind each song; it makes the metal-inspired guitar riffs on "Anchors Dropped" sound distinct. But the band also has some obvious, repetitive elements: moments of hyper-fast drumming, yowling from Verdoes, and spastic instrumentals that stop and start with the song's rhythm. While the sound is fresh now, if every MSHVB album follows this formula, eventually this music will go stale.
And this is what makes the Neumo's pairing of MSHVB and Cursive oddly prophetic.
Cursive, the Omaha-based band and longtime-member of the Saddle Creek family, fell into that common category of sonic-pop-meets-experimental indie rock bands that found critical success in the late 90s or early aughties. A good portion of those bands (Blood Brothers, Braid, and The Dismemberment Plan, I'm looking at you) ended up in a rut. Sure, they might have produced one conceptual album that broke their mold (Braid's Movie Music Vols. 1 and 2, for example), for the most part, these bands just made the same album with the same sound over and over again.
Cursive managed to avoid that fate. Instead, the band reinvented itself with every album, choosing to alter its chaotic sound just enough to create something new. The songs off this year's Mama, I'm Swollen, for example, are calmer, more pop-oriented tunes with less screaming, steadier tempos, and fewer breakdowns that Cursive's early work. But it's still all over the place, with songs ranging from folk to ballads to prog rock.
It's the sort of strategy MSHVB could follow for long-term success. But it's not without risks. Maybe that's because lead singer Tim Kasher might very will be nuts. (Exhibits A, B, and C: Best friends with the completely nutty Conor Oberst, went through a quickie wedding and acrimonious divorce in 2000, and the totally sad lyrics of his solo effort, the Good Life.) This is man who screams a poppy refrain of "Doo doo doo, doo doo doo doo," on songs like "The Gentleman Caller." He was a complete musical force at Nuemo's last night, breaking into screams and falsettos for minutes on end, his hand making the universal symbol for OK, waving it around like Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston do when they hit high notes. He barely spoke to the audience during the band's set -- which lasted an hour and 15 minutes -- except to thank everyone for coming.
Seeing Cursive live at this point in the band's history, after nearly 15 years together and two break-ups, is like hearing a catalog of the band's best songs. Cursive performed nearly all of 2003's Ugly Organ and even "The Game of Who Needs Who the Worst," a punk-inspired song off 2001's Domestica, the band's lone concept album to date.
But it's also a window into how difficult Kasher believes it is to make a successful record. The audience nearly drowned out Kasher's vocals during the song "Art is Hard," Cursive's only real single. Which is sort of ironic, because it's a song about the trials of writing popular music that audience will actually enjoy; specifically, Kasher's attempts to reconcile his insane creativity with what sells records.
The band's last song (before the obligatory encore) was "What Have I Done?," also the final track on Mama, I'm Swollen. It's a near-ballad with a few chaotic breakdowns, but it mostly revolves around Kasher's confessional lyrics. He sings about feeling hopeless and unable to write anything: "I was going to write my Moby Dick/More like scratching lyrics on paper plates." Clealry, there is nothing easy about redefining a band's sound over and over again -- it's taken a toll on Kasher, no matter how happy it might make his fans or how successful it might make his records.