Graded on a Curve: Itasca,
Open to Chance

Currently residing in Los Angeles, Kayla Cohen records and performs under the moniker Itasca. Known for acid-folk of an uncommonly rich variety, her success derives from high-quality songs, beautiful vocals, and most strikingly, considerable acumen on guitar. Far from a typical strummer, she’s also no showboat; folks equally into Judee Sill and Bert Jansch should find Open to Chance to be a treat as she’s joined by a full band for the first time. It’s out September 30 on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Paradise of Bachelors.

Although Kayla Cohen is far from the standard underground folkie, Itasca’s discography does begin in a manner that sorta harkens back to the genre’s boom years. Specifically, her self-released 2012 debut Grace Riders on the Road was offered on cassette in a miniscule run of 50 alongside a more substantial CDR edition of 300. Next came her 6-song “Proto” cassette from 2013, its number bumped up to 80 as circulated by the Belgian label Sloow Tapes. Naturally, it’s physical manifestation is scarce today and sadly, it doesn’t seem to be available digitally at the moment.

That’s not the case with Grace Riders on the Road, which is found on Itasca’s Bandcamp page. It captures the sound of one woman in a room with six strings as a touch of tape hiss emphasizes the modest but competent nature of the recording. Cohen’s playing is already very impressive here, the fingerpicking just weighty enough to keep her gently and occasionally airy songs from dissipating like plumes of incense smoke.

Her follow-up full length and vinyl debut arrived in ’14 on Ducktails dude Matthew Mondanile’s New Images label, and it documents a major step forward. Where her previous effort basically connected as an exponent of the 21st century u-ground folk impulse, Unmoored by the Wind deepened the scenario considerably; instead of simply being informed by the long solo folk chanteuse tradition, Cohen’s personality and ability shined so brightly that the disc could easy be passed-off as a reissue of a rare and high dollar artifact from the late ’60s-early ’70s.

Acid-folk is a relatively expansive style, so the above observation is markedly different from a band emerging in 2016 who look and sound just like The Electric Prunes. However, with last year’s Ann’s Tradition, a cassette of eight superb guitar instrumentals issued on the Perfect Wave label, Cohen made it abundantly clear that she was following her own course.

Shifting the focus away from her singing was no strength-undermining artistic whim; as stated, Cohen is a skilled, expressive player and Ann’s Tradition is a wholly satisfying affair. As her voice returns for Open to Chance she brings along a full band, and in broadening her palette diverts a bit from the acid-folk vibe of Unmoored by the Wind toward more Canyon-esque environs, a maneuver befitting her Cali locale.

The canyon referenced is California’s Laurel Canyon, and by extension the allusion nods to Ladies of the Canyon, Joni Mitchell’s breakout 1970 LP. Open to Chance’s standout opener “Buddy” fits pretty snuggly into that mold (while not actually sounding much like Joni), with crisp drumming and Dave McPeters’ pedal steel cultivating a country-rock angle as Cohen’s picking and vocalizing elevate the whole.

In no way does the expanded instrumentation overwhelm matters; with the exception of accents from McPeters, “Henfight” is all Cohen, her voice exuding sturdy calm and her playing attaining a glistening urgency. While certainly a California proposition, Itasca did commence in New York State, and this bicoastal reality appears to help in the avoidance of standard genre trappings. With this said, “No Consequence” turns up the pedal steel as the rhythm section belatedly enters with a slight tinge of xylophone.

These sorts of situations often lack an up-tempo component, but “G.B.” is a fast-paced and sonically plush slice of country-rocking easily validating the comparison to Gram and Emmylou. And yet the album doesn’t falter into diversity for its own sake, with “Layman’s Banquet” centered upon just vocals and guitar; it sets the stage especially well for Cohen’s shift to the piano bench in “Carousel” as strains of pedal steel enhance the whole once again.

The guitar returns for “Just for Tomorrow” and brings violin along with it, its tone halfway between the back porch and the chamber, but the track’s strongest element is Cohen’s voice, particularly the wordless choruses. It leads to the exquisite beauty move of “Angel”; together with “Buddy,” it seems the track most likely to sway old-school folk heads.

“Daylight’s Under My Wing” introduces hovering flute to the equation as Itasca’s acid-folk leanings get reasserted in a fresh way, its feel well-suited to accompany a quiet morning after, while the subtly more energetic “Right This Time” retains the acid-folk atmosphere. Although Cohen fingerpicks across the majority of the LP, for the gradually increasing intensity of “Bonafide” she switches to an unhurried strum, the cut delivering a splendid finale to an already exceptional record.

Paradise of Bachelors is in the late stages of a brilliant 2016 and at this point is one of the handful of current labels where everything on the active roster is of immediate interest, this circumstance achieved through a simultaneously unified and wide-ranging stylistic approach; Itasca’s Open to Chance shares aspects with Nathan Bowles Whole and Cloven, but they are ultimately distinct. And of equally high quality; Kayla Cohen’s latest is likely to be amongst the year’s best.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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