Tim Cohen’s appreciation for girls with little imperfections (“I like the ones with the crazy teeth, the crooked things they say to me”) echoes his decades-long obsession with compositions pockmarked by blemishes. The popularity of Cohen’s main project, The Fresh & Onlys, seems to validate the value of sound weathered by cheap recording equipment while also striking an argument for the importance of melody, whether upfront or subsumed by muck. However, the most recent Onlys record, Long Slow Dance, felt extremely shot-out to these ears. Not production-wise, as it’s actually a mite cleaner than previous efforts, but in spirit. It’s as if the fertile mind behind the bum-rush of material that preceded it had burned too many post-punk/-garage candles at both ends, leaving his hands burnt to a cavalier crisp.
In retrospect, there was more to it than that; sure enough, around the same time Long Slow Dance was recorded, Cohen moved to Arizona to live with his parents and raise his one-year-old daughter. And when he talks about the arrangement, it seems to be daunting, at the very least. He’s glad he’s found a way to make it all work, but he also knows that traveling so much can’t help but complicate his role as a parent. “It’s a little bit stressful with this new dynamic,” he told Paste (yes, Paste still exists!) late last year. “I’m learning to be a parent with another parent. They’re learning to be grandparents… And since I’m gone so much… For all intents and purposes, they’re also raising the child. We’re working it out. Open communication and all that.” Suffice to say, I felt his confusion coming through Long Slow Dance, and one of the best aspects of Magic Trick’s River of Souls is it feels more focused, as if he’s been able to block out personal stress and hone in on creating more of those mellifluous melodies we love so much. But there’s also a distinct flatness to a lot of these songs, leading me to believe he’s not out of the woods, whether it be personally or creatively, just yet.
One of the most effective transmissions finds Cohen tucking synths into the supple folds of his perversely doo-wop-ish arrangements, forming a distinctive background for the vocals. “You Have to Do” is a song so simple and slinky you’d think its brothers and sisters would do more to pillow-prop it up. Same with the aforementioned “Crazy Teeth,” which follows a different template (rockabilly-lite environs, slide guitar, F&O-style back-up vox) yet again demonstrates how distinctive — and instinctive — Cohen’s knack for songwriting can be.
Unfortunately, the bright spots are weighed down by fodder that would fill the troughs of many, but coming from Cohen feel perfunctory at best. “Beloved One” feels insignificant from the get-go, foundering in a stolid lounge-act complacency and worsened by its howling harmonica. “Blinding Light” could be lumped in with the instantly simple/memorable cuts, but it feels too much like a retread of “Waterfall,” albeit with more AOR trappings. Even the little guitar showcases feel like cheap versions of what Wymond Miles would have provided in Fresh & Onlys. “Salvation” might be the clunkiest lemon on the lot, plodding at an AP English teacher tempo and barely worthy of the truck-stop rock it was influenced by.
Packaged nicely by Empty Cellar Records (Cool Ghouls, The Cairo Gang) on blue-red split-colored wax, River of Souls deserved more of a well-considered flow from one of the more fertile musical minds currently operating in the underground.