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Itasca - Imitation of War

Itasca - Imitation of War

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Album - Release Date: 09/02/24 - Black Vinyl 

Genre: Folk

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.

Instead, now, as she reflects a couple verses later, her eyes are out of the weeds and on her characters, where “daylight shines on her theater.” Or as she sings at the close of the pastoral “Under Gates of Cobalt Blue”: and it makes me laugh / and cry out and laugh again the era’s through / but the story will not end.

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