A lesson in marketing: if you’re planning to make a surprise jump from your successful rock band to focus your efforts on a side project, make sure its name doesn’t augur the end of your musical career. There are too many rock critics happy to half-ass a review with a throwaway like, “It’s Curtains for former Deerhoof guitarist Chris Cohen,”
And Cohen is asking for that type of casual dismissal. On the surface, his decision to leave Deerhoof in June 2006 seems as foolhardy as bassist Zak Sally’s attempt to quit Low right before Radiohead invited the band to join them on tour. To Cohen’s credit, he did make it through Deerhoof’s tour as Radiohead’s opening act. But, the band’s star certainly hasn’t reached the top of its trajectory. Since 2002’s Reveille, Deerhoof have fine-tuned their jangly guitar bursts and fragmentary songs into subversive, memorable pop. Their new record Friend Opportunity—with the minimalist dance beat of “Kidz Are So Small” and the peppy horns and blues-rock of “+81”—brings them ever closer to the type of accessibility that indie noisemakers like Sonic Youth have achieved.
So, while Deerhoof would sell out the 1000-person capacity Irving Plaza one week later, Cohen eschewed that success to split off and perform in a tiny basement club for an audience of approximately 30. If he’s pursuing his artistic vision, it seems remarkably short-sighted. And not that different from Deerhoof’s vision, really. The Curtains’ new record, Calamity, also features angular guitar work, winsome vocals, and sweetly catchy melodies that seem to end prematurely. Accompanied by vocalist/guitarist/percussionist Nedelle Torrisi and keyboardist/vocalist Annie Lewandowski at the Cake Shop, Cohen’s tunes are the subtle, campfire songs of the girls staying across the lake from the raucous Deerhoof boys’ camp. Their harmonies swell and then drift away, and even the guitar’s crunchy chords seem muted. It doesn’t take me long to realize that I’ve been playing their record at a much louder volume than Cohen ever intended.
There are other comparisons than Deerhoof, of course, and the songs bear shades of ‘50s and ‘60s pop ballads, Simon and Garfunkel, and Brian Wilson. Cohen’s vocals peak at a whisper—even the drumming is often only a cautious tap. Songs such as “Go Lucky” or “Calamity” have the careful reserve of a Japanese flower arrangement. The Curtains’ presentation seems so carefully planned and whimsically precious that the small audience finds itself trapped in hushed frustration. These are the sketches of songs so full of tension that they swell with the force of a full orchestra. In the audience, you wait for the manic release, the crashing flood of guitar that bursts the dam.
At the Cake Shop, that note never comes. The loudest sound comes from the crowd’s hesitant applause. The quiet harmonies drift away, and I leave, dreamily remembering how each minor movement was presented with jewel-like perfection. Deerhoof may thrill a roomful of people with their careening, tumultuous rock, and part of that exhilaration comes from the fear that they constantly teeter on the edge. They’re just one sharp turn away from spinning out of control. Cohen, meanwhile, wields a watchmaker’s tools over an instrument so precise and quiet that even the lazy rock critic couldn’t dare be so rude as to joke about his band’s oblique, unremarkable name.
The Curtains is a moniker as self-assured and understated as everything else about Cohen’s new direction. I trust his instincts and respect his restraint, and yet I know that, despite his sincerity, it should be taken with a grain of salt. Because though there’s nothing I can say to criticize Cohen’s softly insistent performance, I know that the next time I listen to Calamity, I’ll turn up the volume till my ears ring.