Do you ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? Not to misinterpret the question asked by a sneering Johnny Lydon of a San Francisco crowd as his band was self-destructing onstage at the now-defunct Winterland Ballroom almost 30 years ago, but seriously, folks, life seems unfair sometimes. In other words, here’s a sensible afterthought for your musical mind: there are simply too many damn bands at our fingertips, and sometimes we’re only lucky enough to encounter a handful of the really good ones. You might find yourself uttering regrets like "Fuck! I missed them play at that dingy hole-in-the-wall last year," and unfortunately you now have to settle for the mega-rock-star treatment as the same group works its charms on an enraptured crowd arena-style. So the story goes rock ‘n’ roll can be a bitch.
The Curtains’ Chris Cohen is more optimistic, however.
"I try to let chance determine what I get to hear now because there’s so much music to choose from," the vocalist and guitarist of the Oakland trio confesses over coffee at Atlas Cafe in the Mission District. And though Cohen is reluctant to put his finger on any particular band that might get his musical juices pumping, he does divulge that most of the combos he encounters nowadays are his friends’ groups or supporting ensembles on tour.
"I really like when you don’t have any prior knowledge of the band, because then you can go at it with an open mind," he adds.
Such was my experience with Cohen’s project. My first exposure to the Curtains was on a chilly November night last year when I roamed over to Oakland to catch Mount Eerie’s performance at a packed 21 Grand. With no particular expectations, I leaned against a wall and watched the threesome set up their instruments. But as the band greeted the crowd with chiming keyboards and palm-muted guitar strums, my semi-inebriated attention was held and then kicked into deep interest.
Onstage, Cohen along with guitarist-percussionist-vocalist Nedelle Torrisi and keyboardist-percussionist-vocalist Annie Lewandowski exchanged smiles and jammed on quiet, twee popimbued ditties. The band’s lighthearted enthusiasm mirrored Beat Happening, while their cheerful harmonies and bubblegum-savvy melodies channeled the Softies and the Vaselines. The mood was buoyant and comfortable as the members sat in place and toyed with electric guitars, a single drum, and a wood block on one song after another.
The aural beauty that floats from stereo speakers on the Curtains’ fourth album, Calamity (Asthmatic Kitty), tells a different story. Performed and recorded almost entirely by Cohen during December 2005, the album is drenched with sunny, ’60s-style psych pop and art rock experimentalism. Calamity at times evokes Smile-era Brian Wilson and early T. Rex with songs such as "Green Water" and "Invisible String," while treading into cozier-sounding territory on the opener, "Go Lucky." As intimate piano strides and acoustic guitar glide forth, Cohen’s Neil Youngish chirp complements the melody: "Go, go, go you lucky one / You, you, you stop anywhere that someone sets you down / No, no, no spots anywhere / You, you, you will just spin me around."
But to Cohen, the Curtains aren’t trapped in a musical time warp. It’s all about what’s accessible to him at the moment.
"For that album I made a conscious decision to make something that wasn’t too fancy as far as the sound goes," he explains. "I wanted to use the sounds that were most easily available to me, which are guitar, bass, and my dad’s piano."
"I wanted it to sound very warm and personal," Cohen continues. "However, the sound of it wasn’t something so much that I had in mind but the effect that I wanted it to have on people, which was to be uplifting and make the listener feel happy. The music I value the most is the kind that takes me out of my life and makes me feel hopeful."
Since 2000, Cohen has had the Curtains in his crosshairs. Cofounded by Cohen and Trevor Shimizu, the group went through a couple of incarnations, occasionally including Andrew Maxwell, Satomi Matsuzaki, and Greg Saunier. After releasing three full-lengths, Cohen put the Curtains on hiatus in 2003 so he could join Matsuzaki and Saunier in Deerhoof. After several albums with that band, Cohen left last year to focus on his own projects.
"The Curtains before was something we would do in really brief spurts," Cohen says. "We would have a show, do a tour, and then rehearse for two weeks. I didn’t want to do it like that anymore. I wanted to make it a regular thing."
According to Deerhoof drummer and ex-Curtains member Saunier, Cohen had recorded 99 percent of Calamity before he revealed that he wanted to leave Deerhoof. "We listened to it in the car on tour, and I was stunned. It was like a garden of ideas and melodies no two alike everything asymmetrical and ravishingly beautiful," Saunier writes in an e-mail. "Every night I’d go to sleep fantasizing about how great the next Deerhoof record was going to be with all these hits on there. Then Chris shattered my dreams. But it’s OK, the Curtains deserve an album this beautiful in their catalog…. The Curtains are like the Jean-Luc Godard of the SF music scene, everything is so human and exposed, which, of course, takes way more nerve than any hipster’s posturing. The Curtains know no rule book for how you write songs they write their own rule book from the spasms of the imagination. They have my undying admiration."
Cohen admits that while recording the album, he wasn’t sure whether to stamp the Curtains’ name on it, because his approach to the recording was so different from his past endeavors.
"Everything with the Curtains has always been done out of necessity," he says, going on to explain that he only had a limited amount of time to work on the music, so he played all the instruments himself.
Though Calamity includes guest vocals by Torrisi and Yasi Perera as well as musical contributions from Half-Handed Cloud leader and Sufjan Stevens chum John Ringhofer, Cohen had to rethink the album in terms of its live re-creation. "When I was making it, I wasn’t thinking of anybody else performing the music, which has made it difficult to now perform it as a band," he says. "I didn’t think anyone else would be interested, and then Nedelle was, like, ‘I want to play in a band again. Can I play in your band?’ "
After Torrisi and Lewandowski joined the Curtains, Cohen says he became "excited about playing new music again in a band with new people."
"Something that’s been really fun now is that everybody has been singing and working on harmonies," Cohen says, "and that’s something no other version of the band has done." The band doesn’t have a big repertoire, he adds, so the trio keep throwing out the songs that don’t work.
Cohen also admits that the idea of even having vocals in his band is relatively new. "I really wasn’t interested in vocals for a long time. I felt like I just wanted to make music that was really abstract, and I just didn’t have anything I wanted to sing about."
But Cohen’s vision seems to have changed with the addition of Torrisi and Lewandowski. In essence, the Curtains are starting over from scratch and fashioning Calamity‘s catchy pop into their own.
"To me, the Curtains has always been a pop band," Cohen explains. "I want it to be music that anyone can understand and enjoy. It fits into the limited amount of time that pop music seems to inhabit people’s lives." *
With Sic Alps and Okay
Fri/19, 10 p.m., $7
3223 Mission, SF