The Nein with Frank F_Ba , Yara and DJ Ryan McLaren Will Meet You at the Pig Races at Sneaky Dee's (431 College ), Sunday (December 12). $10. 416-603-3090. And with Chlorine Dream , Frantic City and Veronica Speedwell at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Tuesday (December 14). Free. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
Finn Cohen has a secret. It's not that he and his band, the Nein, are warming up to be 2005's band to watch. It's not that the North Carolina four-piece are releasing their full-length debut with Canada's own Sonic Unyon label. It's not even that he was once an important part of ex-Cursive Stephen Pederson's side project White Octave. The skeleton in Cohen's closet? Finn Cohen used to be a music critic.
Speaking with me from his home in Durham, Cohen sounds a little rundown. Asked how he's doing, he grumbles, "Actually, not so good."
He's in the middle of exams and the paper-writing crunch in Duke University's music program. Between that and wanting to get back to work on the new album, the pace is wearing on him.
"It's one of the reasons I don't write any more," Cohen admits. "I just don't have the time."
When he was writing for North Carolina alternative rag the Independent Weekly, he had a knack for weaving damning criticism of better-known bands into his coverage of the local music scene. In a review of psych-rockers the Greenhornes, for instance, he found room to comment on the Afghan Whigs' fall from grace, saying they'd become "formulaic enough to end up on the soundtrack to She's All That," and on Ian MacKaye's straight-edge followers, whom he called "just as ridiculous as fundamentalist Christians."
On the phone, the Nein's singer/guitarist/sample-tweaker is thoughtful and well-meaning, generous in praising his peers and the music he sees as having an impact. But being away from the press corps hasn't dulled his musical standards, and the bite of Cohen's critical faculties is never far from his lips.
"We get a lot of funny comparisons," Cohen muses on the subject of people's response to the Nein's danceable angular electro-rock.
"We've been compared fairly frequently to Franz Ferdinand and the Walkmen."
"The Walkmen are great," he continues. "They have a great sound, but their albums are like 10 different takes of maybe two or three different songs.
"And Franz Ferdinand, well, that single they put out is just awesome. It was stuck in my head for weeks. Then you listen to the album and realize that the rest of the songs are just poorly recycled versions of that great single. I'd be really disappointed if that was all we could offer."
So many bands take that tactic to an extreme, inflating one emblematic song into an entire body of work - the monochromatizing of pop. While it's easy to love bands founded around Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart, the Stooges' I Want to Be Your Dog or Morrissey's Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now, it all gets a little monotonous. Cohen and the Nein are aware of these pitfalls and plan to skirt them.
"You try to make music you'd want to hear," Cohen says. "You can't box yourself in. 'Oh, great, you've conquered that sonic realm. Why not try something else?' It's like learning to make one dish expertly and then eating that one dish for the rest of your life."
Big words for a band that has yet to release or even mix a full-length debut.
"I'm not trying to be cocky," says Cohen sincerely. "I just don't want to fall into a rut. Everybody in the band gets bored with playing things the same way. We try to give the songs different treatments every time we play them. If it makes the music more exciting and unpredictable, then we're doing the right thing."