So what makes an independent band “successful”? Oh, record sales will help as will an unending stream of glowing press and kind words from your contemporaries. Possibly the participation with a wide variety of likeminded individuals and record labels who help get your music out there. For most bands, any combination of the above would be a fantastic payoff for all the rehearsals and nights playing to empty rooms. Perhaps having achieved everything he could have with Deerhoof, it made the decision to leave the band that much easier. For most, leaving a band on the heels of a critically acclaimed album (The Runners Four) and prior to a spate of opening slots with Radiohead would seem outrageous, but not everyone is Chris Cohen.
It’s hard to talk about Cohen without mentioning his ex-band. For anyone who hasn’t heard Deerhoof’s brilliantly skewed avant-pop, much of it owes its brilliance to Cohen (and John Dieterich’s) dazzling fretwork on guitar and bass. Equally informing the band’s sound was the deliberately deconstructed pop structures that allowed noise and melody to coexist side by side. The fourth full-length outing by Cohen’s solo outfit doesn’t stray too far from Deerhoof’s template, offering more insistently wonky pop. The downside is, that unlike his previous group’s Voltron tight tunes, Calamitysuffers from a lack of insistence and an absence of hooks.
The one thing Cohen certainly isn’t lacking is ideas, as Calamity runs through 13 shape-shifting songs in a quick 31 minutes. But there is a strange sense of deja vu that runs throughout the disc, right down to the production. Many of the songs recall the spartan aesthetic (and playing) of earlier Deerhoof recordings including the strangely trebly bass, the cleanly strummed guitars, dry percussion and fey, childlike vocals. That Cohen wrote and recorded the album himself is commendable; it’s just too bad it doesn’t offer anything particularly different than Deerhoof. There are standouts: the watery, spacy, reverbed “Wysteria” is great, while “Feel On A Rock & Broke It” condenses Cohen’s love of off-time, turned inside out pop in one fell swoop. But on a disc this brief, there is little excuse for filler like “Invisible Thing” and “Brunswick Stew”, two thin, self-consciously experimental tracks tracks that only serve in breaking up the flow of the album.
So where does this leave us? Well, Cohen offers us an appetizer instead of a main course. It will take a lot for Curtains to escape the long, awesomely freaky shadow cast by Deerhoof. Calamity is a good record, but is merely adequate beside Cohen’s extensive catalog with that band I’ve already mentioned too many times by now. The disc will serve you well while you wait for Satomi and Co. to drop their next album, but it will quickly be forgotten once it does arrives.