Songs: Ohio

Cleveland rocks in the Curtains' West Coast warmth

The Curtains "is what happens if Ohio people come to the West Coast and stay in the sun," says Californian Chris Cohen of his experimental pop band. "It's Ohio music." Cohen is qualified to make "Ohio music" because he spent his childhood visiting family in Cleveland, where he picked up magical and disturbing memories like driving to the huge dark steel factories his grandparents worked in, and seeing his first bunny rabbit. The melancholy and wonder of those sights has stayed with him and seeped deep into the Curtains' sound.

Cohen also spent a chunk of his early years in the family living room, losing himself in his hippie parents' collection of '60s pop records. It's really the perfect image for the kind of private, boundlessly curious art-rock the Curtains create, where the whole pop landscape seems fresh and ready to be remade.

Cohen started the Curtains shortly after moving to the Bay Area in 2000. With an ever-changing lineup over four full-lengths, the group's sound has evolved from abstract, instrumental rock to the gently spastic West Coast indie pop of Calamity. By 2003, though, Cohen had put the often unstable Curtains on hiatus and joined Deerhoof, America's preeminent cutesy noise-pop assault squad. And in 2005, that group released The Runners Four, a critically acclaimed experiment in genre-warping. Cohen had helped focus the wayward sprawl of Deerhoof's ideas into a vastly more accessible sound. But afterward, just like that, the guitarist bowed out to revive the Curtains.

"The songs that I had — I wanted to do them in a way that [would have been] kind of inappropriate with Deerhoof," Cohen explains. "I wanted to record everything myself, and it wasn't really [within] the idea of that band for me to do that."

As a one-man band, he shares the restless sound-shifting and hectic sense of humor that characterizes Deerhoof's music, but on Calamity the hyperactivity feels like the mania of a lonely, over-imaginative kid (instead of a nursery school full of unmedicated ADHD brats visiting the science museum).

"I just didn't speak to anyone about it," says Cohen. "I had already decided what I wanted, so I didn't have to put anyone else through the agony of trying to satisfy me."

Curtains sounds like Cohen smashed a few Monkees, Beach Boys, and Captain Beefheart records and haphazardly glued the shards back together, so that fractured psychedelia, surf music, dusty desert ballads, and sun-kissed harmonies weave around and bash into one other unexpectedly. The effects feel warm and gently strange. "Tornado Traveler's Fear" is one of Calamity's best songs; it links beach-fried guitar licks to pattering toms to a boy-girl chorus that spirals up sweetly before hitting an exchange between sound and silence. All of it, save the female voice, is executed by Cohen. Nedelle, a noted Bay Area musician, provides those vocals; she is now, along with Annie Lewandowski, a member of the touring version of the Curtains.

It's not all fun and sun for Cohen and Co. There's a real sadness here, too; Calamitycaptures the melancholy of a West Coast kid imagining his grandparents — and that furry little bunny — swallowed up in the strange, cold factories of Cleveland.

Ohio music indeed.

 
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