April 20, 2005

The Curtains "Vehicles of Travel"

Over the course of three albums, San Francisco trio the Curtains, which is currently comprised of Open City drummer Andrew Maxwell and Deerhoof members Greg Saunier and Chris Cohen, has slowly inched itself out of the “recommended if you like” ghetto that so many side projects occupy and become its own distinct entity. Their first album Fast Talks, which was recorded before the arrival of Saunier and Maxwell, specialized in amorphous and sloppy twin-guitar instrumentals that inspired the editor of this site to invent a sub-genre called “rehearsal rock.” Follow-up Flybys brought both a change in lineup and a change in sound. Cohen’s long-lined melodies were no longer augmented by a second guitar, but instead by Saunier’s inventive synthesizer playing, which is now as essential to the Curtains’ music as his drumming has always been to Deerhoof’s. Not only that, but Maxwell’s drumming gave the music a lighter, less rigid touch. The music was still amorphous and sloppy, but there was a greater emphasis on melody and joy than there was on dissonance and tension.

The Curtains’ new album Vehicles of Travel pushes this progression a bit further in two ways. One is that they’ve harnessed their constant meandering into more song-like structures. They still like to keep things short and sweet --- only three of the album’s 23 tracks crosses the two-minute mark --- but you can spot discernible patterns emerging in the music. The Curtains don’t deconstruct songs so much as they leave them generally incomplete. “Fletcher’s Favorite” is a sweet ode to a kid who likes to wander around vacant skating rinks. It has verses and choruses, but they’re slotted in between an introduction and a coda that sound nothing like each other. On “Personal Resources,” choppy riffs and martial snare rolls underscore a narrative about government corruption. Just when the song starts building momentum, an unaccompanied guitar solo abruptly undercuts it, and the song ends. On this and many other songs, Maxwell doesn’t even sing all of the lyrics that appear in the booklet. The 49-second “Observation Towers” is even more minimal than that --- the guitar introduces the melody, Maxwell sings one verse and the song ends.

Of the instrumentals, “Nite Crew” and “City of Paris” come closest to the riff-driven craziness of Deerhoof. In the former song, Saunier’s synthesizer ekes out an insistent beeping bass line while Cohen slashes out staccato chords. Cohen and Maxwell speed up and slow down according to the aggressiveness of Saunier’s playing. In the latter song, Maxwell taps out a pendulum-like rhythm on his cymbals while bells and guitars harmonize with each other. “The Gadabouts” and “The Bronx Zoobreak” come across like soundtracks to chase scenes in imaginary detective flicks. The acoustic guitar that enters the former song midway through is an especially nice touch, and the latter song’s jazzy drumming and descending bass line could get anyone’s blood racing. “Crooked Weapon” is the only song on Vehicles of Travel to imitate the arrhythmic blowouts of Flybys, and it sounds out of place among the kinder, gentler tracks that surround it.

Not every song on this album works. The least successful tracks are the ones in which Maxwell attempts spoken-word (“Cops in Cologne,” “Soapeaters!”). His speaking voice isn’t assertive enough to sustain a listener’s interest, and the music the band plays underneath him is strangely nondescript. A couple other songs really DO sound like snippets from unproductive rehearsals. However, very few albums with this many songs are consistent from beginning to end…and besides, even the weaker songs pass by too quickly to be truly offensive. It’s good, though, that each Curtains album is a slight improvement over its predecessors. Maybe next time around, the dudes can crank out a masterpiece that will speak entirely for itself so that reviewers like myself won’t even have to namedrop their main gigs. I believe they can do it!

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://curtains.suchfun.net
Label Website: http://www.freneticrecords.com

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