Album of the Week, February 24: Curtains by the Balancing Act

CurtainsSinger and guitarist Jeff Davis wrote offbeat, folky songs. He rounded up some like-minded musicians to perform them and the eventual result was the Balancing Act. Bassist Steve Wagner, drummer Robert Blackmon, and multi-instrumentalist Willie Aron (credited with “kitchen sinks”) proved equal to the task and the group quickly became more than the sum of its parts. Despite their acoustic foundation and use of layered harmonies, they weren’t a typical folk group. Their influences were wide-ranging and they included jarring rhythms, beautiful dissonance, and a real love of words and song structure in their sonic arsenal. The quartet launched with the EP New Campfire Songs, quickly followed by the full-length Three Squares and a Roof. Those solid offerings paved the way for Curtains, an amazing disc of alt-everything folk-pop.

Title Curtains
Act The Balancing Act
Label I.R.S. Release Date 1988
Producer Andy GIll
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
  1. Generator
  2. She Doesn’t Work Here
  3. Lost In the Mail
  4. Red Pants and Romance
  5. Dangerous Roof
  6. Can You Get to That
  7. Understanding Furniture
  8. Sleep On the Trusty Floor
  9. Fishing In Your Eye
  10. Between Two Oceans
  11. Learning How to Cheat

While not strictly a concept album, the cover art gives some clue to the themes of the disc. Monsters, murders, drowning, and genocide figure in six slim images stacked together, hinting at the loss and conflict lurking within. All four band members contribute to the overall sound, each writing or co-writing at least a couple of songs. Producer Andy Gill (of Gang of Four) makes the most of their collaboration, pulling together a polished but not slick sound that shows off the tight musicianship and vocal precision of the Balancing Act.

Things start with Generator, a conflicted look at nuclear power. Noting that “people hate the generator but love to light up the sky,” Davis poses the question of what risks we should be willing to take to maintain a certain quality of life. She Doesn’t Work Here is a more personal song. A simple story about a man who waits too long to strike up a conversation with an intriguing woman, it serves as a poignant platform for the value of taking chances. It’s a quiet, bittersweet song, lovely and haunting.

Lost In the Mail merges the personal and the political in a tale of a lover imprisoned for a crime of social conscience. The narrator, writing from outside the jail, tries to provide support, but his words go undelivered. The straightforward narrative collides with the facts only implied, leaving us to wonder if the flaw is political suppression, a failure of principles offered too little too late, or some combination of the two. It’s one of the highlights of the disc.

Red Pants and Romance is a reflection on romance, contrasting the reality with the Hallmark delusions. It features some particularly wonderful harmonies delivering the witty lyrics. Davis’ Dangerous Roof is next, a tragic tale of a love lost. It’s a parable of risks, with the singer’s lover perishing in a fall. The vocals are fragile and lovely, conveying the sadness with a firm reality.

Demonstrating their many influences, the Balancing Act move on to an unusual cover. Can You Get to That was originally recorded by Funkadelic on their critically acclaimed 1971 album Maggot Brain. The connection between George Clinton’s multi-piece funk band and a white folky quartet from L.A. may seem tenuous, but it really works. Pulling out the great harmonies, the Balancing Act make the most of this wonderful song of relationship woes, forming the centerpiece of the album.

Understanding Furniture tells the story of Mason, who “was a soldier once.” A taciturn man, he has retreated into himself and refuses to interact with the world that damaged him. It’s an effective story of the human toll of combat and leaves open the question of how best to help our fellow humans. The eccentricity moves to the quirky and first person in Sleep On the Trusty Floor, an ode to hotel rooms. It’s a fun knockoff of a song that shows a lighter side of the band.

The influences arise again on Fishing In Your Eye. It’s a much more dissonant number, with more varied instrumentation and a jazzy, psycho sax riff. A fun, disturbing song, it recalls the more melodic moments of Captain Beefheart (whom the band covered on their debut EP). Between Two Oceans once again merges the personal and the political, looking at international commerce and long-distance relationships.

The album winds up with Learning How to Cheat, which in many ways serves as the band’s mission statement. Written by all four band members, it’s a folk-jazz tour of philosophy.

The roads converge and then they scatter
It’s hard to see how some things matter
Is there a lot that you would rather not know?

Perhaps so, but the Balancing Act will show you glimpses anyway. That’s what they were here for. And with that, the curtain falls on curtains.

Sadly, the rising tide of alternative rock washed past the Balancing Act. They lost their record deal and disbanded in 1989, with the four members scattering to other pursuits. Their limited output, however, was unique and delightful. Fortunately in the digital music age it’s easy to find after a decade or more of out-of-print blues. For a fun, thought-provoking listen, check them out.


About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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