O M A H A
The time is almost here. I'm packing up boxes upon boxes of CDs, books, photos and crap crap crap in preparation for my move back to my old hometown: Omaha, Nebraska.
The funniest thing about my return to that city over 10 years since I last considered it home is that now there's actually a music scene. It's not large (thought it sometimes thinks it is), but it's far more impressive and fruitful than the one that existed when I was growing up there. I tried as much as I could to support the scene back then, when the only real indie shows that came through town were held at the Cog Factory, a tiny little room that could become the hottest room on the planet on a humid summer night.
I once gave a cigarette to a nervous-looking Doug Martsch of Built to Spill there. I didn't even know who he was... I just figured he was some weird cat who hung out downtown at the Antiquarium book/record store. Turned out he was the leader of the band I was going to see that night.
Back then, bands really had to bust ass in that town to make a ripple in a virtually non-existant music scene. One of my favorite groups at the time was a Lincoln band called Mercy Rule. They were a trio lead by husband and wife guitarists, and they always played shows with three huge lights at their feet, so they looked massive on the walls behind them. Of course, I would have to leave Nebraska before I'd ever see them play live, in Columbia, Missouri. If I were forced to say what their "hit" song was, I'd say it was "Time of Day" from their debut, GOD PROTECTS FOOLS.
At that same Cog Factory, I once chatted with a geeky looking 14 year old kid who was gaining a little buzz as the new town prodigy -- a songwriter and guitarist for a band called Commander Venus. That kid was Conor Oberst. Here's him singing in just as squeaky of a voice on that band's "It's Fun to Grow Ornamental Peppers". For Bright Eyes fans, be forewarned: Conor is actually having a little fun here, so please hold your tissues and your tears.
Since Omaha is what I'd call a relatively small "medium-sized" town, I gradually came to realize how insular and incestuous the music scene (or really, any music scene) was. I sat next to a guy in one of my writing classes named Duncan Joyner, whose brother Simon also attended school with my brother a few years before. Simon would basically become a sort of godfather for what would become the Saddle Creek scene in Omaha, providing the blueprint for the folky misery that Oberst would ride to success. "The Simultaneous Occurance of True Love and Nausea in a South Omaha Burger King" is one of Joyner's earliest recordings, and a bit of a rarity if you've ever heard the guy. I think I once got a fried pork sandwich in that same Burger King.
If that example wasn't flimsy enough, I once worked a track meet for the Omaha Public Schools with a guy named Steve Pedersen. Steve and I were two of the only people tapped to stay behind after the meet and clean up the entire stadium over the course of a few days. Steve was in a little band called Slowdown Virginia, who had great songs like "Juan Pablo Shoe".
Steve's band also included Tim Kasher and Matt Maginn (the trio would later morph with one of Pedersen's other bands to form Cursive, undeniably one of Omaha's greatest bands), and their label Lumberjack Records would soon become Saddle Creek. I can't say enough good things about Cursive. One of the best tracks from the Pedersen era (he would leave the band for law school in 1998) is "The Road to Financial Stability," from STORMS OF EARLY SUMMER: SEMANTICS OF SONG. That off-kilter riff is 100% Steve.
After Pedersen left, Cursive's future was in question until the band added Ted Stevens. Ted had been in a band called Pole Cat (playing with a drummer named Boz Hicks, who was in my first little goof-off high school band with my friend Steve), and then in a band I have mentioned here before, Lullaby for the Working Class. As you can hear on "Honey, Drop the Knife" from BLANKET WARM, this wasn't exactly the same kind of band.
Doesn't matter, because when Ted joined Cursive, the band just got even better. They recorded a near masterpiece in DOMESTICA, and then added one key ingredient that completed the band's sound: a cellist named Gretta Cohn. Her presence on subsequent recordings like the 8 TEETH TO EAT YOU ep or THE UGLY ORGAN elevate the music above mere emo-hardcore-melodic-punk. Want proof? Listen to "Am I Not Yours?", "Art is Hard", or that fantastic breakdown on "Some Redhanded Sleight of Hand" and tell me that cello doesn't whoop more ass than a cello should.
Tim Kasher is the key ingredient for me, and his recent work with one of his side projects, The Good Life, has been as good as anything he has done with Cursive. The band's "new" album, ALBUM OF THE YEAR, is more sonically interesting, with a number of instruments and some subtle production nuances that really add to the ambience of loss on the record. It's a combination of Leonard Cohen, Wilco and Bauhaus, especially on "A New Friend". The lyrics are what really slay here, telling the story of drunken love gone wrong for all the usual reasons: "She said 'Space is not just a place for stars / I give an inch, you want a house with a yard" (from "Album of the Year").
I don't know who I'll be saddling up next to at the bar when I return home in a few days. I just hope I can pick up my guitar and give back to a few of these folks just a fraction of what some of them have given to me over the years.
This will probably be my last post until the move on Sunday. I'll see you at the 49'er, kids.