Even before the New Hampshire seacoast power-pop and punk rock band Notches disbanded, vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter Ezra Cohen decided it was time to move into fresh solo territory. Since Notches were such a fuzzy and clamorous band, Cohen needed another outlet to experiment with mellow, poppy sounds. Before Notches, Cohen grew up listening to local New Hampshire artists such as lo-fi psychedelic explorers Mmoss, punk darlings Billy Raygun, and emo savants Brave Little Abacus. Cohen gained early experience in the New Hampshire DIY scene before emerging as a solo pop-rock and alt-country artist who paints with broad brush strokes. He generously conveys relatable personal experiences of love and loss through a pop lens in the vein of his slacker rock hero Evan Dando.
Eventually, Cohen wrote what would become his first three-song single titled 3 Songs, recording these singles alongside engineer, producer, and friend Max Grazier who played slide guitar on the record. Through these singles, Cohen fashioned his signature twangy sound, featuring a unique blend of pop-rock riffs and slide guitar. The sugary pop single “The World’s in Love With You” effectively launched Cohen into a new realm of local success, bolstering his confidence and launching his career as a singer-songwriter. With The Sweet Million released jointly through Relief Map Records and Dead Broke Rekerds, Cohen has now assembled a dynamic pop-rock and alt-country debut full of poppy earworms of remarkable depth.
Mixed at the Metal Shop by Ian Farmer (Slaughter Beach, Dog, Big Nothing) and mastered at Dead Air in Amherst, Massachusetts by Will Killingsworth of pioneering screamo bands Ampere and Orchid, Cohen plays all of the instruments himself on The Sweet Million. He efficiently carves out sonic space next to indie rock albums such as Freedy Johnston’s This Perfect World, the Lemonheads‘ Car Button Cloth, and Matthew Sweet‘s Girlfriend. Also, Cohen channels the alt-country melodies of artists Lucinda Williams, Jason Isbell, Drive-By Truckers, and A.M.-era Wilco through its ten memorable songs.
Beginning with a droning keyboard part, “Catchin’ Up” kicks the album off on a positive note with a unique number that doesn’t quite fit into a traditional verse-chorus structure, nodding its head to Paul Westerberg’s Stereo (2002) by focusing its pop energies around a single chorus idea that feels like an incomplete thought in the most charming way possible. The second single, “I Saw the Country”, returns Cohen to his alt-country roots with a catchy, romantic bildungsroman centered around growing up in New Hampshire and feeling stuck between two different worlds. Featuring backing vocals and welcome steel guitar played to perfection by Philadelphia musician Max Stern, this track touts the most twang on the record and will remain locked in your mind for weeks. “I saw the country, I saw the coastline, I saw the water in your eyes,” Cohen sings in bittersweet tones. “I saw Virginia, North Carolina, I wanna see that from your side / ‘Cause I want you, and I need you in my life.”
A tuneful pop song about growing up that would fit in perfectly on the soundtrack of the series The O.C., “Sixteen” then touts an earth-shattering snare sound and blistering backing guitars, delivering a hospitable rock sound akin to both the Gin Blossoms’ “Hey Jealousy” and Tom Petty’s “The Waiting”. Featuring backing vocals from Michael Cantor, the next intimate track, “Shooting Star”, then launches into a gorgeous acoustic sound with Big Star vibes reminiscent of Chris Bell’s jangly I Am the Cosmos. Exploring the life of a revered, wayward character who is “lost in space… getting high in the dark”, the song eventually explodes with a crunchy guitar lead that wouldn’t sound out of place on Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque.
“Annabelle” is another song about a character close to Cohen (his cat). Featuring bright guitar parts and soothing backing vocals by singer Molly Devitt, this acoustic track paves the way for the first single on the record, “Just Like You”. Altogether in Cohen’s wheelhouse of pop, “Just Like You” offers tongue-in-cheek lyrics, inspired keyboard parts, and larger-than-life hooks. It’s a song on par with “The World’s in Love With You” and re-establishing the bread and butter of Cohen’s heart-on-your-sleeve brand of guitar-pop. “Kiss Me In the Dark” then unabashedly evokes a sound reminiscent of the early Goo Goo Dolls, a sound that Cohen might once have felt nervous revealing to the world during his Notches days but now thankfully seems completely comfortable embracing. “I know you’re working way too late / Working on the shift you hate / So I wrote you this song, so it’s like I’m there,” Cohen sings in this song.
While “Talk of the Town” features a Replacements guitar sound and switches from the singer’s point of view to the perspective of an obsessive character focused on the perils of social clout, “Guess It Was Love” is a bittersweet gem that sounds as if Brian Wilson wrote a pop song for an early 2000s teen drama. The track sways and simmers in 1960s pop vibes, crooning vocal melodies, bittersweet what-ifs, and a climbing, uplifting parting guitar solo that is easily one of the best moments on the record.
Closing things out with the early Nada Surf sound of “Change of a Season’s Kiss”, Cohen delivers autumnal emotions and re-explores his central themes of growing up and the aftermath of inebriation. Atypically brisk and rough around the edges for the album’s mellow tones, embracing more of a punk rock ethos, with this song Cohen truly comes into his own and feels fully grown, the last line of the record delivering a memorable refrain: “I just fell in love with life again.” On The Sweet Million, Cohen emerges as a solo pop-rock and alt-country artist of remarkable versatility, delivering pop hook after pop hook while solidifying his status as one of today’s most memorable up-and-coming indie songwriters.