Chris Cohen’s breezy, effortlessly refined psych-lite songwriting may not surprise the minority of listeners keen to his decade fronting Cryptacize or Natural Dreamers. But as for the rest of us, decamping from our Captured Tracks associations — or, of course!, his time backing the enduringly iconoclastic and provocative West Coast pop vanguard of Deerhoof and Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti — we can only open the conversation in contradistinction. Absent are the synths and glassy fidelity of the former, as well as the jarring fits of noise and absurdity, the ponderous plays of self, taste, and appropriation of the latter.
On this gentler sojourn, a hook is foremost a component of a working whole, articulating the doubts and anxieties that follow us into adulthood, ripening without ostentation or pretense. Overgrown Path sees Cohen going it alone with quiet confidence and a penchant for understatement. Even if only a certain laxity of attention recommends itself at first, this short collection compels repeat spins and sidesteps the captious critical faculty. The unhurried charm and ease disarm, their joys compulsively fruitful; these 10 meditations on aging, changing, and leaving are just in time for autumn’s glowing declensions.
Cohen’s lithe phrasing recalls a dilatory James Mercer stripped bare of adenoidal projection or a demure Roger McGuinn lost in thought. His tone is pellucid, the harmonies clean and direct: refer to lead single “Optimist High’s” serpentine melody and clean falsetto. The guitar work — minimal, measured, and unremittingly anchored to motif and line — might get you wistful over George Harrison’s command of slow contour and simplicity. Refer to how the rail-thin, chiming middle pickup motif of “Rollercoaster Rider” reappears under the chorus’ major refrain like a memory fading at the edges, or the way in which “Heart Beat’s” solo yearns with a sheer economy of fretwork. Copacetic, that. And don’t mistake a simplicity of execution for a lack of sophistication in ideation. “Inside a Sea Shell” — a clear-eyed vision of Los Angeles’ sub-aquatic end — rotates perplexingly inward, a Beatles miniature swirling around its curious lack of affect. (I can’t help recalling Quasi’s early career cadences.)
The artlessly strong songwriting draws the carriage between Chad VanGaalen’s less driving numbers and Father John Misty’s ear for a timeless turn, with a Byrdsian touch for calm, clever modulation. Throughout its brisk playtime, Overgrown Path evinces an airy touch with transitions, a knack for phrasing (the pauses and extra beats always find their right place), and an invidiously deft hand for crafting verses equal to their choruses (“Don’t Look Today” being the most fitting example). And when Cohen channels his past associations, he does so memorably: opener “Monad” features a driving dyadic run that refuses facile commitment to a key, channeling the best riffs of Deerhoof’s Milk Man. “Caller No. 99” revolves around a credible Haunted Figure guitar figure, moving with the nerve-ticked inertia of fingers on the dial.
Overgrown Path reflects Cohen’s relocation from the urban density of the West Coast to rural Vermont in its sense of distance and personal quiet. Shying away from rustication as panacea, Cohen betrays his age gracefully on “Open Theme,” wishing for his “Young life of open theme, come back to me.” So, sure: maybe there’s a target demographic here. To wit, “Heart Beat’s” votive: ”I wanted you to know/ Beginning time is through/ And the younger tears are too/ Drying up slow”. In expressing the post-melancholic comfort of 1990s indie rock’s middle age, Cohen waxes personal on some universal binaries — propagation/stasis, ends/continuity — to a growing crowd who feel some short of loss but north of change. You might also simply categorize this suite as forthrightly personal, favoring the existential and unanswerable over the interpersonal.
So what with all the worry and vex that come with asking ourselves, “What is that — my nature?” well into our working lives and well past the point where potential was spelled with a capital P, we can take heart in the surprising joys we can find in tracing our questions through paths obscure and soon to be underfoot.