Years Active: 24.
Provenance: Omaha, Nebraska.
Essential Albums: Black Out, Domestica, The Ugly Organ, Album of the Year.
Essential Songs: "The Casualty," "A Golden Exit," "After O'Rourke's, 2:10 a.m.," "Some Red Handed Sleight of Hand," "A Gentleman Caller," "Album of the Year," "Inmates," "From the Hips," "Heartbroke."
Influenced By: The Cure, Pavement, Fugazi, Archers of Loaf, Weezer, the Magnetic Fields, Superchunk, Shudder to Think, Pixies.
Influence On: Throw Me the Statue, Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate), Sufjan Stevens.
Precautions: Emo adjacent. Best to avoid anything written after 2007, with the exception of Help Wanted Nights.
Why You Should Give a Fuck: If Conor Oberst is the Saddle Creek musician from Omaha who became known to America, Tim Kasher is the Saddle Creek musician who wants Omaha to become known to America. Maybe because of this narrow but deep focus on his hometown and its characters, Kasher has never and probably will never reach the level of popularity attained by the labelmate he helped form, but at least he didn't sell out like a punk. (JK, Conor gives back.)
Kasher has led three bands—Cursive, the Good Life, and his solo project—through 18 albums that are musically distinct but thematically consistent.
In almost all of them, a Catholic God lords over the sprawling suburbs of a fictionalized Omaha. (There's a little Lincoln, Nebraska, sprinkled in there, too.) Its citizens spend most of their time in the service industry, trying to manage their alcoholism, their impotent ambition, and their guilty conscience. They tie one on at the bar, drive across the bridge to Council Bluffs for after-hours booze, and then drive home to drink more and have infidelitous sex before finally passing out on a pullout bed. The main character in these musical dramas is a reluctant serial monogamist who reads above his town's grade level, but who's too secure/insecure to leave. His self-deprecating attitude is charming, but everyone knows it's just another form of self-aggrandizement.
Cursive presents the big, loud-quiet-loud, guitar-driven version of all that. Kasher's loyal side piece, the Good Life, trades theatrical guitars and tantrums for nuanced synth and mopey moaning. Though the projects sound completely different, they both reveal Kasher's talent for writing short-story songs about boozers who will never be great at art or love but they do what they know because what else is there to do in this fucking town?
His solo stuff—The Game of Monogamy, Adult Film, and the recently released No Resolution—feels like feature-length indie-pop symphonies. Though he's always used the form of the concept album to elevate the everyday lives of his characters, in this newer work you can feel Kasher trying to do for Omaha what Pavement did for Central California's suburbs, or what Sherwood Anderson did for Winesburg, Ohio.
Kasher's voice binds the work together, too. His yawning timbre and breathy falsetto make it sound like he records all his songs shortly after waking up from a nap, which suits his speaker's dirtbag disposition. He's also a master of playing a sarcastic tone off the music to create poignant emotional moments in songs.
Take my favorite example from Help Wanted Nights,"Heartbroke." The song is about two people who have broken up. The boyfriend is clearly devastated. The girlfriend says she's having a hard time with it, but the boyfriend tells us she's "stopped stopping by to say hello" and is in fact already seeing another person. In the final chorus, Kasher piles on the sarcasm: "I can't imagine how hard it's been / On second thought, you don't seem to give a shit. / You claim the pain, but where's the bruise? / Yeah, I'm sure your heart is breaking too." He sings those lyrics in a bratty tone, but then a genuinely pained, distorted guitar lead bursts out of the song's dopey bass line. Like heartbreak, you don't see this guitar part coming, and the surprise is completely heartrending.
Kasher knows that few people have room in their bag nowadays for indie rock about working-class artists who are forever re-litigating breakups in their art and wondering why in the world they'll never be considered Great for the service. But there's a lot of that kind of thing going on in the Midwest, and not much else. Instead of abandoning those people for something "more," the increasing sophistication of Kasher's compositions over the course of his career shows he's chosen to dignify their lives by taking their struggles seriously.