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.