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Palm Trees and Rust Belts 

Why the Curtains make Ohio music while calling California home.

Chris Cohen (right) just loves our rusted steel mills.
  • Chris Cohen (right) just loves our rusted steel mills.
"It's Ohio music," says the Curtains' Chris Cohen, speaking of Calamity, his group's latest collection of weird but mellow experimental pop. A lifelong Californian, Cohen believes the Curtains "is what happens if Ohio people come to the West Coast and stay in the sun."

He should know.

Back in them flower-power days, Cohen's hippie parents -- "musical theater people" -- headed west, relocating from Cleveland to Los Angeles. Back in the '80s, he would visit his grandparents here. These were often magical and sometimes disturbing trips, involving the ancient steel factories his grandparents worked in, as well as the first bunny rabbit he ever laid eyes on.

Cohen also spent a chunk of his early years in the family living room, losing himself in his 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 landscape of pop music seems fresh, ready to be claimed and 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, the group released The Runners Four, an experiment in team song-building and genre-warping that paid off in buckets of mainstream critical slobber. Cohen had helped to focus the wayward sprawl of Deerhoof's ideas into a smarter, more coherent, and vastly more accessible sound. But just like that -- with the punky, playful San Francisco quartet lauded in The New York Times -- the guitarist bowed out to revive the Curtains.

The Runners Four had been recorded in a truly collective spirit; each member contributed an equal, independent share to the writing of each song. Once recorded, this schizophrenic mind-meld fit in just fine with the band's long legacy of sonic experimentation, but the Frankenstein process of stitching the pieces together didn't totally reflect Cohen's personal approach to music making. On the phone from Contra Costa, California, he is reluctant to connect his Deerhoof days to his present Curtains work (although many writers tag the group as a spin-off). The process he employed when writing songs for Calamity -- each element flowing straight from a sound in his head to a sound on the tape -- is a mirror opposite of the Runners Four experiment.

"The songs that I had -- I wanted to do them in a way that [would have been] kind of inappropriate with Deerhoof," he 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, Cohen 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, overimaginative kid stuck inside on a rainy day (instead of a nursery school full of unmedicated ADHD brats visiting the science museum).

"I just didn't speak to anyone about it and kept it as my little private thing," says Cohen. "That way, I could play all these parts that I had going in my head. I had already decided what I wanted, so I didn't have to put anyone else through the agony of trying to satisfy me."

After the first couple of spins, Calamity seems about as Californian as they come: sunny, dreamy pop music filled with odd lyrics. It 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 -- as well as bash into -- one another unexpectedly from moment to moment. The effects feel warm and gently strange -- kind of like the Bay Area itself. "Tornado Traveler's Fear," one of the record's best, links beach-fried guitar licks to softly pattering toms to a boy-girl chorus that spirals sweetly upward before hitting a post-punky 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.

At the same time, Cleveland hangs just below the music's surface. In fact, Cohen admits a debt to the violent and brilliantly irritating sound of the Electric Eels, C-Town's pioneering proto-punk jerk band. The Eels were defiantly incompetent art-punks who terrorized our city in the mid-'70s, provoking bar fights with steelworkers and getting arrested for drunkenness at their own shows. The band's sound is sloppy, antagonistic, and lo-fi to the extreme. And even though Cohen left the group's Rust Belt fury back where it belongs (with us), he carried its gleeful naïveté, frantic protean spirit, and underproduced sound back to California, allowing it soak up some rays on those Pacific Ocean beaches.

But that doesn't mean it's all fun and sun for Cohen. There's a real sadness here too, the melancholy of a West Coast kid imagining his grandparents -- and that furry, little bunny -- swallowed up in the strange, cold factories surrounding us.

Ohio music indeed.

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