Itasca, “Imitation of War”
By Jim Allen · February 15, 2024
Los Angeles, California
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Los Angeles, California
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Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)

When we last heard from Itasca, on 2019’s Spring, the world we lived in was a different one. Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter Kayla Cohen started writing the follow-up in autumn of 2020. Every sentient being on the planet felt the changes that year wrought, and the ripples inevitably inhabit Imitation of War.

The Itasca that greets us here is a more haunted incarnation of the one we knew five years ago. Not that Cohen’s earlier albums didn’t sport their share of melancholy moods. But there seemed to be a carefree, will-o’-the-wisp feeling underneath it all, a sense that things would never grow so grim that a sweet summer breeze couldn’t turn them around. And it’s not like that scene has suddenly shifted to inky, shivery night on Imitation of War. Sun-dappled days still seem to dominate the forecast. But it feels like the evening’s a little closer, and there are already some hazy specters starting to form around the edges of the late afternoon.

If earlier Itasca albums evoked a modern variation on the early ‘70s Laurel Canyon acoustic troubadour vibe, Imitation of War leans more towards the bittersweetness of an early Jefferson Airplane ballad. Accordingly, Cohen—the album’s sole guitarist—plugs in a lot more than she ever has before, bringing that gentle San Francisco psych tinge into view. There are no strident Jorma Kaukonen/Jerry Garcia explorations, just softly swirling clouds artfully obscuring your field of vision.

Bassist Evan Backer and tag-team drummers Evan Burrows and Daniel Swire (all of whom only pop up about half the time) are the soul of tastefulness, providing only the amount of punctuation and propulsion absolutely necessary. At their most overt, they help give the tumbling, slightly spooky title track a dash of Red House Painters (bittersweet San Fran folk-rockers from yet another era), even as Cohen’s mist-across-the-mountaintops vocals ignite distant Mazzy Star memories.

Echoes of Itasca’s past iterations poke through on tunes like “Dancing Woman” and “Olympia,” where deftly picked acoustic guitar provides Cohen’s only company. But even here the shadows grow long, and unknown obstacles threaten to obscure the sunlight. By the time the latter tune ends the album, it’s hard to say where things stand emotionally. Midway through the record, singing about the “Tears on Sky Mountain,” Cohen invites, “try to pile them all through the needle’s eye.” It’s an effort she knows is doomed to failure. But when she bumps her calm, clear resolve up against the kind of shadowy feelings we’ve all absorbed in the last five years, you start to think it just might be possible.

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