A review of Chris Cohen’s self-titled album

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Rating: 7.7/10

The self-titled album has historically been a very specific statement for an artist to make in their career. In this case and at this time in the music industry, it can seemingly mean a lot of different things, running the gamut from introducing the personal brand of an artist to reaffirming their presence halfway through their career. Oftentimes a self-titled would be an artist’s first album. This is not the case with Chris Cohen, who has recorded two solo albums and been involved in the music industry for the last few decades.

A self-titled record later in a career seems to suggest a new claim to identity, a self correction, or even a strengthening of the artist’s personal brand. For Chris Cohen, this record solidifies his musical vision as vitally important to the industry, offering up a sound that only he can put together.

This record suggests the third type, offering us a deeper look into the artist’s psyche, as well as building off his work on his first two albums, “Overgrown Path” and “As If Apart.” As far as sound and production go, it’s not a wildly different direction for the artist or a jagged departure in a new direction.

Not that there needs to be any new ground broken here. In many ways the folk-rock pantheon is an old, tired genre, one that either slips into the past or sputters and quits when it’s at the frontier of explosive innovation. But for those who pay attention, there is plenty of room in the genre for quiet auteurs, artists who innovate in subtle, quieter ways.

Cohen’s sleepy songs are just as comforting and welcoming as we’ve come to expect, the kind of music you can allow to wash over you and that sound better the more you give in to their particular energy. Though this sleepiness can become a bit redundant, I’m sure it’s exactly what Cohen intended, opting for gentle wave of sound instead of the bombastic, over-engineered songs we’ve become accustomed to in this day and age. For someone looking for a a group of songs where instruments pop out and songs are dynamic and shifting, this might not be the record for you.

At its best, though, the songs on this record are exercises in tastefulness. “Edit Out,” the first single from the album, is one of the more memorable tracks from the album. While guitars tumble around a retro drum machine, Cohen sings about family and what we choose to tell each other and, more importantly, what we choose not to tell each other. As he repeats his suspicions over and over, a soft saxophone reminiscent of the easiest jazz of yesteryear fills in the remaining parts.

“I rub my eyes and look around

You can hardly tell at all

Estimated what they’d edit out

Maybe nothing there at all”

Despite the chilled-out, rainy day vibe of Cohen’s music, he does occasionally opt to contrast these soft sounds with a driving instrumental segment, such as at the end of “No Time to Say Goodbye,” when a spacious, brooding track jets forward into a pulsing, saxophone-filled breakdown. The track, almost as if it can’t support this level of energy, soon falls back into its initial rhythm, and fades away into the end of the album.

You may know Chris Cohen from the band Deerhoof, which he was a member of in the years 2002-2006. The experimental flavor of their compositions, balanced with their pop sensibilities, helped to define Cohen’s early career. Revolving around these ideas, Cohen has been able to develop a sound that is truly his own, but one that has transformed in the last decade and a half. Cohen’s solo records now seem committed to the folk-rock sound, slowly smoothing over more experimental edges and ditching odd time signatures for more straightforward rhythmic backgrounds.

“House Carpenter” goes full folk, balancing itself on a traditional arrangement that feels only slightly removed from its roots, paying homage to some of the best 60s and 70s folk bands such as Fairport Convention. The lyrics play out like a traditional song – Cohen mentions ships, sailors, kings, and true loves. How much this has to do with familial bent to the rest of the record, it’s hard to tell.

The glue that holds the album together is Cohen’s delicate, sweet voice, which hardly ever wavers from its baseline sound. Yet even if you desire that he’d show some energy or demonstrate a little dynamic voice work, you can’t deny that his vocals go hand in hand with the sparse, low-key atmosphere of the tracks.  His delivery also plays nicely into the effortless 60s aesthetic that Cohen builds on the album, which is able to find that delicate blend of jazz and folk that artists in that decade were so adept at. Everything from the psychedelic shimmer of the guitars to the tasteful organ textures assist in creating this mosaic of homage.

The album processes family issues, an emotional place for the songwriter. His parents recently separated after 53 years of marriage, leaving Cohen yearning for more understanding about family and relationships. You don’t hear this emotional processing work through Cohen’s voice, though, as it remains almost stoically interrupted by emotion. The timbre of his vocals, a degree removed, seem to suggest a certain detachment. If you want the emotional story of this album, you’ll have to pay close attention to the lyrics.

As a personal statement, Chris Cohen’s self-titled album reaffirms what he’s been working on for the last ten years. The particular blend of retro sensibilities toying with genres such as folk and jazz, assisted by his serene, almost detached voice, create an atmosphere unlike anything heard in contemporary music. As a musician, Cohen is a unique voice and a true auteur, and this album shows that he’s confident in what he’s doing.

 

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