Los Angeles-via-New York singer-songwriter Kayla Cohen, working under the Itasca moniker, possesses a decidedly throwback aesthetic. Hers is a sound that would not sound out of place in the company of some of the best of the Laurel Canyon scene of the early 1970s. Rooted in folk, there’s a strong thread of country running through her latest release and first for Paradise of Bachelors, Open to Chance. Having left the East Coast for the West, Cohen has fully ensconced herself within the birthplace of the sound she so clearly holds near and dear. In so doing, she lends a further degree of authenticity to her Laurel Canyon-aping sound, leaving Open to Chance sounding comfortable between Joni Mitchell, Cat Power at her most acoustically introspective and Sibylle Baier, to whom she often bears a striking, almost uncanny vocal resemblance.
Given these particular points of reference, the subdued nature of the album should come as no surprise. Nothing here is rushed, the music unfolding on its own terms, flowing forth with a gentle ease and grace and possessing something of a meditative quality. Cohen’s softly plucked acoustic guitar serves as the basis for much of the album’s 11 tracks, each a gently cascading series of notes tumbling over each other in beatific harmony.
And while her voice tends to remain within the same basic range throughout, it’s the effortlessness with which she drifts from note to note that proves most impressive. It’s a soothing approach proffering the quiet embrace of a lullaby as the sound rarely rises above a hushed whisper. This subtly affecting approach proves to be both her strong suit and sticking point.
Everything about Open to Chance is subtle. From Cohen’s voice to the instrumental arrangements, nearly every moment is as unobtrusive as a warm summer afternoon spent idly watching the clouds pass by overhead. “Just for Tomorrow” floats in and out of focus, her vocals double-tracked and harmonized atop a gently finger-picked guitar and subtle strings. It’s a lovely moment meant for active listening, the album to be consumed as a whole rather than piecemeal.
But this approach also brings with it an inherent sameness to the proceedings. Only opening track “Buddy” and its companion piece “G.B.”, with their measured country rock feel, manage to rise wholly above the serenity the rest of the album affords. One of only a handful of tracks to feature drums, “Buddy” helps ease the listener into Itasca’s world, serving as a welcoming opening statement that helps with the transition to the remainder of the album’s borderline somnambulant tone.
“No Consequence” is a country rock/folk classic in the making, carrying with it all the hallmarks of the best of a bygone era. From Cohen’s thoughtful chord progression to the surprising hook thrown into the song’s mid-point that helps open it up to myriad melodic possibilities. It’s a fine example of the best both Itasca and Open to Chance have to offer, all mournful melancholy and the hopeful optimism.
On “Carousel” her voice evokes that of Mitchell, soaring effortlessly into the upper reaches of her range without the slightest hint of difficulty. Delivered almost as a sigh, her hushed vocal threatens to blow away in the face of the more demonstrably deliberate, almost measured block piano chords and simmering steel guitar wending its way in and out of the track. It’s one of many gorgeous moments on Open to Chance that eschews an obvious lyrical hook in favor of the cultivation of an emotionality that resonates within the listener more than any melody could ever hope to.
Hers is a gently affecting approach not necessarily meant to make any sort of significant impact on the listener. Rather its hushed tones are designed to be consumed and enjoyed within the moment, a soothing balm against the stridency of modern day events. In Open to Chance contemporary listeners can find themselves in the warm embrace of a long-vanished form of hippie/folk idealism until now existing solely within the dusty grooves of idle record collections. With Open to Chance, Kayla Cohen’s Itasca proves to be a gentle new voice to watch.
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