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The Curtains - Calamity

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Artist: The Curtains

Album: Calamity

Label: Asthmatic Kitty

Review date: Nov. 23, 2006

The appeal of Calamity lies in its likeness to a sketchbook. Minimally arranged, a little rough around the edges, the songs have an understated vitality and liveliness that is preserved in their simple execution. A few lines drawn here and there is enough to bring them to life. The unassuming presentation also means the basic ideas behind the songs come through, and the clear, confidant statement of values – ’60s pop-melodisism, playful song-form, uncluttered arrangements – are a welcome contrast to the usual stylistic gloss or overt referencing of influence. But the shortcomings are also those of a sketchbook; the few underdeveloped pieces, the lack of polish, a couple of false steps. Taking all of this into account, my professional inclination is to deem Calamity a good, but not great, album, and this verdict seems to me fair and level-headed. But in practice it’s an album I listen to frequently and with much enjoyment, whose faults I have little trouble overlooking.

At the base of the songs on Calamity is an understanding that a foundation in pop-melody allows for greater freedom in structure and harmony while still remaining within the realm of the rock-idiom. Odd melodic phrasing and moments of dissonance color the songs without feeling forced or diverting their energy. This trait is the band’s greatest strength. The songs that might otherwise seem too vague or unfinished are propped up by this tendency towards understated contrast, be it a sudden, unusual turn or an outcropping of “pop” in an odd passage. The minimal instrumentation is a nice touch, too, as it gives the songs an open, honest feel. One doesn’t suspect that they need the fireworks of a marching band’s worth of enthusiastic players to distract the listener from shortcomings in the song-writing. Lyrically, the songs are abstract but with a sense of melancholy that’s more effective for its lack of ostentation.

Against the album, a few reasonable points can be made. The prevalently low-key mood of the songs doesn’t do much to draw the listener in, and Chris Cohen’s unseasoned vocals carry the melodies and lyrics but don’t always flatter them. There are a few duds; “Wysteria” is done-in by a strange treatment on the vocals and the instrumental “Brunswick Stew” feels extraneous. “Invisible String” is nice but somewhat insubstantial, and the same, though to a lesser extent, can be said of “Spinning Top.”

Calamity shows the Curtains to be a band of great moments more than great songs, and in this distinction lies the difference between the listener that dismisses the album and the one that holds on to it despite its flaws. These sketches have value in that they represent the work of a mind that celebrates melody, thoughtful song-writing and brevity – which is no small list to scoff at – but together don’t quite form a cohesive whole. The shortcomings, however, are minor ones, and the smart listener will know to keep their eyes and ears on the Curtains.

By Raf Spielman

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