The music of L.A.-based guitarist, singer, and songwriter Kayla Cohen is mutable and multivalent, richly allusive of the hermetic worlds of private-press canyon-cult mystics and East Coast noiseniks alike. Her adept fingerstyle guitar work—nimble but unshowy, always at the service of framing her plaintively unspooling modal progressions and gorgeous, moonlit voice—centers these melancholy pastorales in a hazy, heat-mirage space equally suggestive of familiarity and distance, community and anomie. Itasca’s enchanting, acid folk-inflected PoB debut is also the first to feature a full band.
As I was walking
I came upon
the same road upon.
— Robert Creeley, “Kore” (1959)
In his 1959 poem “Kore,” Robert Creeley conjures a roadside encounter with chance, personified as a woman with dark eyes and earth in her hair, “accompanied/by goat men” and stepping in time to a “double flute.” The poem’s title historicizes the incident, cloaking it in an obscure classical ambiguity: Kore, or “maiden,” can refer either to Persephone, the mythological Greek goddess of the underworld, or generically, to ancient Greek sculptures of young women, mortal or divine, characterized by a stylized, enigmatic grin known as the “archaic smile.” This uncertainty shades the poem’s spare beauty with a stippling of sun-dappled dread; does the appearance of the lady chance, with her Mona Lisa smile and her satyrs, prefigure an occasion for love or death?
It’s fitting that Los Angeles-based guitarist, singer, and songwriter Kayla Cohen, who records and performs as Itasca, cites Creeley, and “Kore” in particular, as an influence on her enchanting, quietly assured new album Open to Chance. A hue of emergent classicism colors the stately pace and graceful carriage of these eleven understated, helical songs, suggesting both the dirt tangled in Persephone’s hair as well as the esoteric wordplay and sly musical tactics of a trickster. With Cohen’s gorgeous, moonlit voice, Open to Chance sings out an archaic smile; it poses that same inscrutable riddle of the maiden.
The idea of chance made manifest in the guise of a traveler appeals to Cohen’s symbolist songwriterly tendencies, which embrace both the arcane (her recurring, veiled references to tarot and the occult) and the quotidian (the album jacket photos were shot at the Santa Anita racetrack in Pasadena, a crucible of bad luck for gamblers). Like Creeley’s poem, Itasca’s ostensibly concrete, rustic songs—populated by chickens, mice, roses, rain, and pigpens—often pivot on a detail that reveals the limpid observational imagery in fact to be in thrall to other, sometimes unsettling forces, natural or supernatural. However, far from sounding ponderous, these juxtapositions of the everyday and the extraordinary are always subtle, even droll—winking incursions of faint magic into otherwise grounded, guitar-driven songs about a young woman’s various relationships. They also happen to reside within airy, inviting ballads—country songs in the loose, sun-shot Southern Californian sense (lots of pedal steel and space)—with melodies like arid blooms effortlessly issued from a dusty abode of adobe and tile.
And so the gentle riverine roll of opener “Buddy” punctures a dream of romantic Arcadian domesticity with the darker religious ramifications of holy debt: “I thought it would be nice/To live on the mountain by your side/Love you in the sun-warmed lake/Forget my dues to the saints.” “Angel” features both a “dancing Pan” and a “seedsman” with vines in his hair, a figure from the same street as Creeley’s kore. The icy solo piano number “Carousel” includes a chilling couplet that guts the modern, bourgeois notion of the five-day work week, and all that entails, with a pagan sacrificial scene: “And the weekends are filled with the act/Of dressing and toasting the death of the calf.” These are, perhaps, “the pleasures of the unknown” of which Cohen sings, but they are disconcertingly normalized in porch-friendly country-rock form, available at an altar near you come quittin’ time on Friday. The critic Harold Bloom praised John Crowley’s postmodern faerie novel Little, Big (1981) for the way it “renders domestic the marvelous”; something similar, it seems, is afoot throughout Open to Chance.
Just as the word Itasca itself is equivocal—a 19th-century pseudo-Ojibwe place name and portmanteau of the Latin words for “truth” (veritas) and “head” (caput)—so too is Cohen’s musical project mutable and multivalent: fundamentally unconcerned with genre, but richly allusive of the hermetic worlds of private-press Californian canyon-cult mystics and East Coast noiseniks alike. Tellingly, her songwriting idiom emerged gradually from her longstanding noise and drone practice. Her evocative, out-of-time recordings as Itasca—refined over the course of several releases, including the acclaimed 2014 LP Unmoored by the Wind—reflect her Janus-faced gaze towards both baroque, acid folk-inflected songcraft and deconstructive, textural sonics.
Though deeply informed by the mythology and iconography of the modern American desert West, Cohen likewise finds kinship with a lineage of English iconoclasts such as Michael Chapman and Bridget St John. Her adept, fingerstyle guitar work—nimble but unshowy, always at the service of framing her plaintively unspooling modal progressions and sonorous vocals—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. The result is Cohen’s most accomplished, beguiling, and finely rendered record to date, the most complete invocation of the Itasca ethos.
The poem “Kore” ends with an aptly anxious question: “O love/where are you/leading/me now?” Maybe the mysterious woman on the road brings the promise of both love and death. As Cohen asks of chance in “No Consequence,” “Who is this blind god who walks with no regrets?”
+ RIYL: Michael Chapman, Bridget St John, Mike Cooper, Steve Gunn, Kenny Knight, Ryley Walker, Meg Baird, Jessica Pratt, Linda Perhacs, Sibylle Baier, Bert Jansch, Vashti Bunyan, Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Current 93
+ Available on 140g virgin vinyl as an LP, with heavy-duty 24-point matte jacket, color labels, and download code; CD edition features heavy-duty gatefold jacket
This feeling that we, as listeners, have been granted access into Itasca’s private inner sanctum is what helps give [Cohen’s music] its quiet gravity, and her ample instrumental skills and deft songcraft make this invitation well worth your while.
– Matthew Murphy, Pitchfork
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.
– David Keenan, for Volcanic Tongue
The image of the solitary songwriter strumming away and singing her songs promises transparency, but a chief virtue of Itasca’s Unmoored By The Wind is that it doesn’t give up its secrets too easily.
– Bill Meyer, The Wire
Itasca shows a kind of total fluidity of delivery, where she sings anything she sings and the music slips and flows around her. Put it this way: once there was a song called “Walking In The Rain,” and that’s her style of playing now, too. The opening interlude and the instrumental passages here recall guitarist Peter Walker in contemplation—sharp, deliberate, suggestive in its minimalism—and, well, that’s Cohen’s voice, too, except for the sharp part. She’s more agile than Baier but just as direct.
– Chris Ziegler, LA Record
released September 30, 2016