Essential New Music: Itasca’s “Imitation Of War”

When Kayla Cohen spoke to MAGNET in 2016, she gave this explanation for selecting the name Itasca: “The word means a bunch of different things: the idea of truth and the unknown.” The more things change, the more they stay the same. Imitation Of War sounds quite different from the last Itasca record, but then, no two Itasca LPs sound alike, even though they’re all mixed using two essential ingredients. There’s Cohen’s voice (a lithe instrument well suited to convey lyrics that reward your time) and her fluent guitar playing. But the additional elements change each go-round, as does her treatment of the essentials.

One easy frame for Imitation Of War is recent current events; Cohen wrote it in the depth of COVID time and recorded it in its wake. Stuck at home with a bunch of books and plenty of time to ponder, Cohen composed a series of dense-yet-fluid songs that wield ancient symbols to cope with the eternal challenges people face dealing with each other. But that framework is just a starting point to grasp a record that’s all about what’s beneath the surface. Every noun and image is an invitation to follow some rabbit hole into the recurring patterns of human relating.

When it came to lay down some tracks, Cohen was ready to shake off the still of contemplation. She swapped the Guild acoustic guitar that’s been her main instrument on previous records for a Gibson SG and retained Robbie Cody of Wand to get the sounds down. While it would be a stretch to call it a full-on embrace of rock, Imitation Of War has a bigger presence than its predecessors despite being more sparely arranged. Most of the time, it’s just a rhythm section and Cohen’s voice and guitars. At some points, her six-string tones brighten and shade the words, but on a few tracks, they leave the lyrics behind, delving into the spaces behind them. On the epic “Easy Spirit,” Cohen’s overdubbed guitars wander and joust like a one-woman Grateful Dead. Ever-changing, but always dealing with the essentials, Itasca stays the course by changing it yet again. [Paradise Of Bachelors]

—Bill Meyer