By Jason McDowell   Published Aug 24, 2006 at 2:10 PM
Cursive's new album "Happy Hollow" was released on Aug. 22, and as I was opening the wrapper and preparing to play it I began to feel some mixed emotions.

The earlier albums, "Domestica" and "The Ugly Organ" were met with critical acclaim due to frontman Tim Kasher's heart-wrenching, self-effacing emotion that exploded forth from the disc. With such an intense outburst, I knew the flame could only burn for so long. Thus, I thought, their follow-up could go two ways: It could follow the formula they had set forth, burning their torch to the handle (and possibly further), or they could move on.

Their hand might have been slightly forced when their longtime cellist, Greta Cohn, left to pursue other musical opportunities.

Instead of replacing her throaty, brooding strings, Cursive opted to move on into a brighter five-piece horn section as well as piano, accordion and some other additional instrumentation. Lyrically, Kasher moves away from attacking himself and outwards towards larger ideas and politics.

The result is "Happy Hollows," a concept album that follows several citizens in a town of the same name. It discusses the blandness of suburban life, the inner battles of gigalos, the hypocrisy of religious leaders, and it even toys with thoughts as expansive as "The Big Bang."

Unfortunately the album itself never becomes as expansive as its subjects. As Kasher enters the lives of his characters his lyrics never really get under their skin; these people live lives with a veneer of satisfaction, but rarely do we care enough to consider how it relates to our lives. The message becomes as hollow as its characters.

The change in their sound and dynamics also feels a little forced. You can certainly hear the band exploring new musical ideas, trying to find their new groove. And while new musical elements pop up here and there, I never quite feel the confidence that was easily recognizable on such tracks as "Butcher the Song" from "The Ugly Organ."

One track swings. One track feels a little country. There's some gospel in there. Nothing ever quite sticks, though, and it feels more like dressed up, guitar-driven indie rock.

It's nice to see the band branching into new territory, but as a result the album sounds like sitting in on the band's brainstorm, not the final product. The search isn't interesting enough.

Nevertheless, their live show should be impressive, especially since they're playing The Pabst Theatre on Sept. 24. Perhaps the best way to experience the newest direction is to be enveloped in the power that their sound will undoubtedly bring.

Verdict: Not so "Happy," much more "Hollow."