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ITASCA

Itasca

Imitation Of War

    The first Itasca record in over four years begins, in “Milk,” with a dream of Genevieve, “the myth in the mirror’s gleam” perhaps, on this faith-haunted album, a reference to the fifth-century saint, or the chaste, cave-dwelling heroine of medieval legend. It ends with Olympia, standing at the shore maybe, among these myth-haunted songs, a reference to the ancient Greek sacred site, or, considering the artist narrator of the title track, to Édouard Manet’s revolutionary 1863 painting of a defiant sex worker. Across its suite of smoky nocturnes, Imitation of War finds Los Angeles-based songwriter, singer, and guitarist Kayla Cohen continually embracing the tangled ambiguities of its evocative title, with its suggestions of artfulness, artifice, and antagonism alike. Aptly, the song “Imitation of War” maps the range of the eponymous record’s domain, in which Cohen surveys, with refreshing urgency and a refined sonic palette, mythologies and psychologies both classical and deeply personal. Her characteristically ethereal vocals precipitate, among orange and laurel trees, upon rockier terrain than ever before, negotiating a “muse’s crown” and “a snare set by the devil.” The uneasy idyll, set to a brisker tempo and more spirited and spacious band-centered arrangement than most anything on Spring (2019) or Open to Chance (2016), her prior two albums with Paradise of Bachelors, captures the flexibility and finesse Cohen wrings from reduction. Distilled to an oceanic essence of guitars, bass, drums, and vocals, Imitation of War is simultaneously (and somewhat counterintuitively) her loosest, leanest, and most liberatingly unclad album and her most theatrical set of songs and performances to date. “Molière’s Reprise,” named for the seventeenth-century French playwright, sets the mise en scene: like the apple tree that hangs on / the curtains rise, I sing my song / myth changes to an actor’s call the bell rings, the curtains fall / and storyless I’m off.

    This kind of allegorical theatricality manifests not only in the redolent, if sometimes cryptically allusive (and intentionally Jungian), symbolism and subject matter which includes El Dorado, Circe, and Orion in addition to the aforementioned cast of muses, saints, and devils, at play in night and nature but likewise in the immediacy of its inky, glammy production. Cohen began writing several of these songs, notably “Tears on Sky Mountain,” in the fall of 2020, while she was recording with Gun Outfit (with whom she plays bass) in Pine Flat, California, near Sequoia National Forest. A nearby forest fire darkened the day into an eerie, eternal gloaming, ominously masking and unmasking the moon above the redwoods a menace and color palette that shaded the resulting songs. Engineered and co-produced by Robbie Cody of the bands Wand and Behavior, whom Cohen credits with helping to instill a newfound levity and sense of fun in the recording process, Imitation of War features both Cody’s bandmates Evan Backer and Evan Burrows and Cohen’s regular collaborator and bandmate Daniel Swire, also of Gun Outfit.

    Cody proved instrumental in shaping the elemental, guitar-centric arrangements to achieve what he refers to as “an economy of sounds.” Cohen played all the guitar parts herself, largely on her 1971 Gibson SG-100 the acoustic instrumental sketch “Interlude,” the ballad “Dancing Woman,” and the portrait in miniature “Olympia” are exquisite exceptions showcasing her deft command of the instrument. Nowhere is this confidence and lyricism more evident than on the record’s sublime nine-and-a-half-minute centerpiece “Easy Spirit,” the incendiary, downshifting dynamics and painterly solos of which radically expand her prior folk-inflected guitarist touchstones Michael Chapman, Mike Cooper, Meg Baird into the rarefied rock-and-roll strata inhabited by Jerry Garcia, Phil Lynott, and Tom Verlaine. These ten sturdy set-pieces represent the most smolderingly electric guitar-forward recordings of Itasca’s deepening catalog.

    Cohen explains the titular simulation as the “performance of war postures” evident at every scale of human and animal life. But it could just as easily apply to the revelation that, with Imitation of War, Itasca has finally come to inhabit fully the staged postures toward which former records gestured. She sounds more herself, more confidently authorial than the longing protagonist of her earlier work. No imitation, formal or emotional, of former self or imagined other, remains. It’s a self-knowing sentiment implied in the lyrics of “El Dorado”: I knew the road to my El Dorado / but I was caught looking at the weeds

    TRACK LISTING

    A1 Milk
    A2. Imitation Of War
    A3. Under Gates Of Cobalt Blue
    A4. Interlude
    A5. Tears On Sky Mountain
    A6. Dancing Woman
    B1. El Dorado
    B2. Easy Spirit
    B3. Molière's Reprise
    B4. Olympia

    Itasca

    Spring

      In the fall of 2017, a year after the release of her acclaimed 2016 album Open to Chance, Kayla Cohen, the songwriter and guitarist who records and performs as Itasca, left her home in Los Angeles to live and write for two seasons in a century-old adobe house in rural New Mexico (pictured on the album cover). More urgent escape than fanciful escapade, the move from one Southwestern desert to another resulted from a set of dire circumstances, both personal and societal, not least of which was the sense, shared by many, that a sinister cabal of impaired lunatics had irredeemably poisoned the already sour well of our American discourse. She decided to drop out and dive deeper—hiking into the mountains, through fragrant juniper and piñon forests, past groves of golden cottonwoods, to the source of what she calls in the song “Cornsilk” with a nod to poet Clayton Eshleman “the canyoned river.” Inspired by the landscape and history of the Four Corners region, the resulting album, the sublime Spring—its title summoning both season and scarce local water sources—dowses a devotional path to high desert headwaters.

      Cohen followed some heavy footprints across the Sandia and Sangre de Cristo ranges. In the long American tradition of lighting out for the territories, many artists, particularly visual artists including Terry Allen, Georgia O’Keefe, Agnes Martin, Walter de Maria, Bruce Nauman, and Susan Rothenberg have famously sought refuge and inspiration in the Land of Enchantment. Captivating landscapes and the astonishing biodiversity aside (outside), foot-thick adobe walls provide a security and shelter insulation and isolation that can be hard to find in LA. With her studies of New Mexico’s long history and seismic geological and cultural changes, Cohen sought something different, more ancient—a hearth, a retreat from the noisy and noisome city, yes, but also a deeper historical understanding of urbanity and community, landscape and loss. (Chaco Canyon’s massive architectural complexes ranked as the largest buildings in North America until the late 19th century.)

      Her investigations bore bright fruit in the form of an interpretive travelogue: Spring, suffused with mystery and a keenly evoked sense of place, contains Cohen’s most quietly dazzling, coherent, and self-assured set of songs to date. Having withdrawn from and returned to the city, she sounds more like herself than ever before. In the context of the album’s bolder arrangements, her gorgeous, lambent voice and helical fingerstyle guitar plumb new depths of expressivity, confidence, and wonder. Inflected with flourishes recalling the ’70s orchestrated concept albums from which it draws influence, Spring resembles an archeological excavation of
      Cohen’s own encanyoned style. She recorded unhurriedly, in piecemeal fashion, with various collaborators: first to two-inch tape at Minbal studio in Chicago, with Cooper Crain (Bitchin’ Bajas) engineering; then to quarter-inch tape at home, with a Tascam 388; and finally overdubbing at Tropico in Los Angeles, with Greg Hartunian. Daniel Swire (drums), Kayla’s bandmate in Gun Outfit, and Marc Riordan (piano) of Sun Araw provided the exquisitely delicate rhythm section; Dave McPeters once again contributed lightning-field flashes of pedal steel; and James Elkington arranged the subtly cinematic strings (played by Jean Cook.) Chris Cohen mixed, imparting some of his signature classic pop dynamics, which press beyond the sonic realm of the solitary singer-songwriter.

      If Open to Chance felt moonlit, spectral and spooky, Spring sounds positively auroral, luminous, a brisk early morning walk through lucid daylit dreams, a series of vivid visions in thrall to the dusty New Mexican terrain. By opening themselves to multivalent interpretations, these generous, sun-dappled songs hide nothing. An intentional narrative of discovery connects the sequence, from the beckoning highway apparition in “Lily,” through the immersion in the “Blue Spring” dug deep into the recesses of a cliffside cave, to the resigned farewell of “A’s Lament” (which ends, poignantly, with a blessing to a departed friend: “I just want you to be free”). Elsewhere the links to Cohen’s research are oblique, more atmospheric and impressionistic than explicit. She carefully claims no authority or answers, but instead offers a traveler’s tranquil observation and wide-eyed reflection, weaving together her questions about the relationships between the land and the Ancestral Puebloan culture that shaped it with her questions about her own cultural and ecological bearings. Lead single “Bess’s Dance” provides a metaphorical key to the record’s concept, with a glimpse of the Basketmaker culture’s woven artifacts, functional art objects that so fascinated Cohen that she found herself dreaming their patterns:

      TRACK LISTING

      A1. Lily
      A2. Only A Traveler
      A3. Bess’s Dance
      A4. Comfort's Faces
      A5. Voice Of The Beloved
      B1. Blue Spring
      B2. Cornsilk
      B3. Plains
      B4. Golden Fields
      B5. A’s Lament 

      From the rolling, saturated bass and dusty twee synth lead on the titular opener, 'Itasca Road Trip' paints an impressive picture indeed. Half-way between the washed-out warped aesthetic of Boards Of Canada and the soft-focus pastoral vibes of Ghost Box / Clay Pipe releases, this truly is something to behold. 

      'Badlands' flies the BOC flag with a hi-passed synth lead and field recorded vocal mutterings whilst being bolstered by persistent percussion and airy atmospherics. Move on a little bit and we get the beautiful full-spectrum synthetic swirls of 'Steel Whirl', with deftly filtered synth sweeps panning around the stereo image whilst satisfyingly crescentic elements get layered into a driving cacophony of cosmic bliss. It's a simple formula but works imeccably well throughout this collection, interspersed with more mood-setting pieces such as the follower 'Sylvan Lake'. Entirely differentiated by those that surround it, but sharing a similar thread of cohesion, with drifting synths and crisp beats being warped into a brilliantly evocative noisy scree whilst still retaining an innate melodic sensibility.  

      The stunning 'Devil's Tower' paints a grand but intimidating picture, being entirely beatless but unspeakably majestic, humming with analogue warmth and unspeakable weight. Soft synth pads swell in the background beneath the shimmering delayed keys and swirling leads. 

      This is a gloriously evocative and beatifully understated cohesive collection of electronic soundscapes, rich with soaring moments and introspective ambience. 

      STAFF COMMENTS

      Barry says: I love Boards Of Canada and always have, but similarly have been put off by a lot of bands that try to take their unique aesthetic and run with it. This is of a similar vein to the OG's but is without a doubt, the most well thought-out and mesmerisingly stunning electronic album i've heard for a good few years. An absolute winner.

      TRACK LISTING

      1. Itasca Road Trip 02:32
      2. Kandiyohi 02:51
      3. Badlands (original Version) 03:21
      4. Campstop Arcade 01:23
      5. Steek Whirl 04:03
      6. Sylvan Lake 02:44
      7. Hike To The Summit 02:05
      8. The View From Harney Peak 01:36
      9. Cumulonimbus 02:08
      10. This Is A Tornado Warning 02:18
      11. Conifer 02:38
      12. The Couch 00:40
      13. Devil's Tower 04:00
      14. Bad Monday Hymn 03:28
      15. Soo Line 02:40
      16. The View From The Needles 02:07
      17. Reynolds Park Watertower 02:29
      18. Viewers Like You 01:22

      RIYL: Michael Chapman, Bridget St John, Mike Cooper, Steve Gunn, Kenny Knight, Ryley Walker, Sibylle Baier, Bert Jansch & Vashti Bunyan.

      ITASCA is the musical identity of Los Angeles-based guitarist, singer, and songwriter Kayla Cohen. Just as the name itself is ambiguous—a 19th-century pseudo-Ojibwe place name and portmanteau of the Latin words for “truth” (veritas) and “head” (caput). Cohen, who grew up in New York state near the Hudson River, moved from Brooklyn to L.A. in 2011. Though she began playing guitar at age thirteen, her songwriting idiom emerged gradually from her longstanding noise and drone practice.

      Her out-of-time recordings as Itasca—refined over the course of several releases, including the acclaimed 2014 LP Unmoored by the Wind (New Images)—reflects both this dislocated geography and her Janus-faced gaze towards both baroque, acid folk-inflected songcraft and deconstructive, textural sonics. Her adept fingerstyle guitar work—nimble but unshowy, always at the service of framing her plaintively unspooling modal progressions and gorgeous, moonlit voice—centers Itasca’s melancholy pastorales in a hazy, heat-mirage space equally suggestive of familiarity and distance, community and anomie.

      Open To Chance is her first album to feature the full band with whom she currently records and tours, including pedal steel player and frequent collaborator Dave McPeters, drummer Coleman Guyon (and occasionally Kacey Johansing), and bassist and vocalist Julia Nowak.

      “Gorgeous acid folk reverie… A heady slice of lysergic ladies of the canyon, with the feel of tropical microdots that dominated the These Trails and Linda Perhacs sides given a slightly more baroque dream-time feel. Some of the guitar stylings have the kind of courtly appeal of Current 93 circa Of Ruine Or Some Blazing Starre, but when she gets into more complex vortices of steel strings she comes over like Robbie Basho circa Basho Sings. This one came out of nowhere and knocked us sideways“ Volcanic Tongue 

      TRACK LISTING

      A1 Buddy
      A2 Henfight
      A3 No Consequence
      A4 G.B.
      A5 Layman’s Banquet
      A6 Carousel
      B1 Just For Tomorrow
      B2 Angel
      B3 Daylight Under My Wing
      B4 Right This Time
      B5 Bonafide 


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