Record Reviews: Cursive, Christina Aguilera

We review the new album from the Omaha band.

Cursive, “Happy Hollow”

4½ stars

It’s been a rough 10-year existence for Cursive.

The band’s no stranger to members leaving, members joining, breakups or reunions. It seems like every release they record comes after some critical change in the group but, coincidentally enough, each change allows the introduction of some new sound, some new idea.

That stands true with the Saddle Creek punk rockers’ first new LP in three years, “Happy Hollow.”

In the time between records, rumors flew about the band breaking up as frontman Tim Kasher threw himself into The Good Life, his other musical project, and cellist Gretta Cohn, the pivotal player who gave Cursive’s acclaimed “The Ugly Organ” its haunting mood, left the band to pursue other outlets.

That left a stale foursome to create new music after not playing together for nearly a year.

So the pattern goes, the band evolved.

Over the course of that 10 years, Cursive morphed from critically derided angsty Fugazi imitators to intelligent musicians in their own right.

With the release of “Happy Hollow,” it’s now safe to say the imitators deserve to become the imitated.

On this, Cursive’s fifth album, Kasher is no longer the lonely drunk he loves to play. Instead, he’s a storyteller, profiling the lives of small town residents, soldiers and preachers and questions the actions and teachings surrounding them.

And moreso on “Happy Hollow” than any previous album, he gets help from guitarist Ted Stevens, famous for fellow Saddle Creek band Mayday and work with former Lincoln band Lullaby for the Working Class.

Stevens contributed two of his own songs. You’ll know them when you hear them. They have Mayday’s swing.

And with a few more dissonant guitar noises and the introduction of a horn section — possibly as a substitute for Cohn’s cello — “Happy Hollow” is as good as anything Cursive’s ever recorded. It’s not the deeply personal record one might expect from Kasher and Co., but it’s thought-provoking and it has the one thing that really matters in modern music: It flat-out rocks.

Cursive, here’s looking to the next 10 years.

—Joel Gehringer, GZO

Christina Aguilera, “Back to Basics”

3 stars

Nowadays, it’s typical for a teen pop star to mutate into a pop tart — but no one did more quickly, or more scandalously, than Christina Aguilera.

The former Mouseketeer turned multiplatinum diva caused shockwaves with the release of her second album, 2002’s “Stripped” — not because of the album’s content, but the image that accompanied it. With tacky extensions, Band-Aid length skirts, wicked sexual imagery and an overall bad-girl attitude, she mutated into X-tina — a persona so toxic it almost overshadowed her formidable talent.

While she insists she hasn’t changed — her new album contains the defiant “Still Dirrty” — Aguilera is no longer shoving it in our faces. On the appropriately titled “Back to Basics,” the recently wed Aguilera — the album’s executive producer and co-writer — is putting the focus back on her music with an ambitious, double-disc set that pays tribute to her jazzy, bluesy influences.

The first disc, primarily influenced by hip-hop stalwarts like DJ Premier, achieves a retro sound without losing its contemporary edge, infusing samples from R&B’s early days with thumping bass lines and alluring grooves. “Ain’t No Other Man,” the disc’s first hyper single, is a showstopper of a tune, but it’s certainly not the only one.

“Slow Down Baby,” on which Xtina throws cold water on a guy’s bedroom dreams, is a sassy, tough-girl jam featuring brassy, funky horn effects; “On Our Way” and “Without You” also are sparkling, stirring tracks that layer Aguilera’s gorgeous vocals for an almost angelic effect. And Aguilera, whose powerhouse voice is always technically perfect but sometimes emotionally deficient, has never sounded as vulnerable and tender as she does on the mid-tempo song “Understand.”

Though the self-congratulatory closer, “Thank You” (a message to her fans that features them praising her name) is a bit off-putting, the first disc leaves no doubt that Christina, X-tina — whatever she goes by these days — is not only one of music’s best singers, but one of its better overall artists.

If only she had stopped there.

Unfortunately, there is a second disc, and it’s a big letdown. Paired once again with uber-producer Linda Perry, who wrote Aguilera’s Grammy-winning “Beautiful,” the pair have difficulty recreating the magic on disc two.

Once again, Aguilera pays homage to her old-school inspirations — except with no musical update. Instead, she attempts to bring the classic sound into today’s world by infusing it with a bump-and-grind, sexual tone, and it just doesn’t work — songs like “Candy Man” and “Nasty Naughty Boy” sound like they’re from some tacky Vegas revue. And even when she abandons the boogie-woogie vibe, she still stumbles, as on the overwrought weeper “Hurt.”

But she does end on an up note with the melancholic “The Right Man.” Buoyed by a dramatic string section, Aguilera welcomes her betrothed while saying goodbye to her old demons and insecurities.

In essence, that’s what Aguilera has done on “Back to Basics.” By exploring the roots of her musical persona, she finally realized she never needed to rely on a caricature to draw attention or express herself — her words and voice speak loudly enough.

— Nekesa Mumbi Moody, Associated Press

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