Melancholy Baby

Life is a cabaret, old chum: The Good Life
Courtesy of Saddle Creek

Far from the madding crowd or the thundering herd, Omaha, Nebraska, is establishing itself as the unlikely locus for a new music scene. Spotlighting a close-knit circle of friends, the Saddle Creek label is home to an underground effulgence reminiscent of Minneapolis's Twin/Tone in the Eighties. With the sad-sack, acoustic confessional musings of Bright Eyes, the Eighties synth-pop new wave of the Faint, and the Fugazi-inspired Sturm und Drang of Cursive, Omaha's talents are as eclectic as they are passionate.

From Cursive singer/guitarist Tim Kasher comes the Good Life, whose new album is a soft, subtle masterpiece with the narrative shape of a two-act play. Black Out (Saddle Creek) features brief songs to preface and close its action, each echoing the album's title and offering a cinematic flow to the proceedings. Like Cursive's 2000 tour de force, Domestica--which ran like a passion play through the stations of a relationship from discovery to perdition--Black Out delivers powerful vignettes that capture the lonely self-loathing and negation of love's seemingly endless pursuit.

As opposed to the wrapped and wound riffs of Cursive, the Good Life have a cabaret quality reminiscent of early Tom Waits. Among the highlights are the tracks that end each of the acts. "The New Denial" offers an ambivalent embrace of forgetting the past, while on the album's closing track "Off the Beaten Path," Kasher ponders, "I wonder if I could ever get it back to how it was/When I thought of love as a risk I could take." Piano and organ underscore the majority of the tunes, which are accompanied by burbling electronic beats on the Cure-ish "The Beaten Path." Acoustic strumming and horse-clop percussion adorn "Early Out the Gate." And dark ambient washes with background screams (as in Pink Floyd) underscore the somber "Drinking With the Girls." Many of the compositions have instrumental outros or intros, and most have several distinct movements within the song.

Equally plush in its overall effect, Azure Ray's latest has members Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor sharing evocative harmonies over gauzy piano, acoustic guitar, and supple synth. Reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins in the nearly ethereal quality of their vocals, Azure Ray display a musical aesthetic that can be found somewhere between the introspective shamble of slowcore and the ominous, stalking Americana of Smog and Edith Frost.

Their six-song EP November (Saddle Creek) finds the duo's sound more stripped-down than on their self-titled debut. The most memorable moments lie in the title track, with its haunting cello courtesy of Kera Schaley (who also played on Nirvana's In Utero); and in their dazzling space-folk cover of Townes Van Zandt's "For the Sake of the Song." More tender than a sympathetic sigh on a rainy day, Azure Ray evince enough winning charm and easy elegance to open their own finishing school.

Both the lush, breathy harmonies of Azure Ray and the whiskey-flavored, post-punk rag of the Good Life express the heart's equivocations. "If you love it, you leave it, 'cause you hate that you need it," sings Kasher on "The Beaten Path," capturing the fear of loss. Similarly, on "November" Azure Ray compare lost love to "your childhood home/But we can't go back, we're on our own." We may get lost in our pursuit of love, but these honest albums might help us find true north.

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