Sometimes you really can judge a book by its cover. If you passed by a copy of Flybys at a record store, its front cover would look fairly nondescript. It’s a drawing of a bunch of cakes lined up on a conveyor belt, with an automated tube squeezing frosting on each one. Stare at the cover for a couple of seconds, though, and you’ll notice that the tube is squeezing the frosting IN BETWEEN the cakes. Only a couple drops of frosting actually land on the cakes. Otherwise, little more than a pastel-colored mess is made. This image is perfect for describing the music of the Curtains. In the hands of less twisted musicians, the songs on Flybys would be quaint, pretty, and little more than that. However, this Californian trio finds ways to play these songs in utterly wrong and backward ways.
A glance at the members’ pedigree would give listeners a clue of what
they’re in store for. Pay attention to this paragraph, though, or else you’ll get confused. Chris Cohen and Greg Saunier are members of both the Curtains and art-pop geniuses Deerhoof. Cohen plays guitar in both bands; Greg plays keyboard in the former and drums in the latter. Cohen’s guitar playing in either band consists mainly of slashing power chords and lopsided Captain Beefheart-style noodling. Saunier’s drumming in Deerhoof is savage and elastic, like Keith Moon on an angry free jazz rampage. He tickles the ivories, though, in a much less frenzied manner. Greg and Chris play together in the Curtains in much the same way that Chris and guitarist John Dieterich do in Deerhoof. They either echo each other’s melodies or add interesting counterpoints to them, only occasionally lapsing into noisy spasms. Curtains drummer Andrew Maxwell plays like a calmer version of Greg in Deerhoof. Maxwell plays with tempo and silence in a similar manner, but you don’t get the sense that he’d break a snare drum every other song. Basically, Flybys sounds like a looser, quieter, instrumental version of early Deerhoof, back when Deerhoof actually had a keyboard player. Did you get all that? No? Well, this review will be in the Mundane Sounds archives so you can digest it all at your own pace.
The first song, “Park Work,” sets the tone for the whole record. Each
instrument sounds like it’s playing at a different BPM than the others: speeding up and slowing down at random, and only bothering to meet up with each other at the beginning of each riff. You can hum it, but you definitely can’t dance to it. It sounds as innocent and shambolic as a group of children playing jazz in their father’s garage with pawnshop instruments. Tracks like “Fast Talks” and “Blink, Professor” are more experiments with silence than they are actual songs. Tracks like “Death Constellation” and “It’s the Bunklords” play with metal riffs only to strip them of their power by removing any sense of meter or tempo. Brief, thirty-second synthesizer experiments like “Asterisks by Moonlight” sound like Greg attempting to distort his instrument as much as possible without making the mastering engineer go deaf. “Partners” and “Telegraph Victories” are the tracks that I’d particularly recommend for first-time listeners, mainly because they sound like ‘60s pop songs with Greg’s synth playing what would be the bass lines and horn parts. There are also two tracks that feature vocals by drummer Maxwell, who sounds like a sore-throated Robert Wyatt.
Twenty-two tracks pass by in thirty minutes, and you’re only a third of the way through the album before the songs start becoming interchangeable with each other. Towards the end of the album, there are four songs that pass by in a total time of less than two minutes. You won’t notice, though, unless you’re staring at the LCD display on your CD player. Because of the sameness, the ramshackle sound, and the fact that the whole thing just screams “SIDE PROJECT” at you from the mountaintop, Flybys is probably doomed to a very limited audience. This shouldn’t be the case, though. There’s just enough melody and musicianship in these songs to underscore the thought, talent, and effort put into them, and the album’s just too friggin’ BRIEF to get boring. Anyone who likes Deerhoof’s quieter or more unhinged moments should be able to get into this record. Hey, I wouldn’t be writing a review of this record unless I liked it…or unless the editor told me to review it.
Okay, so it’s actually both…whatever.
Flybys is weird and good.
Man, that sentence should’ve been my whole review. It would have saved me a lot of work.