Itasca- Unmoored By The Wind

By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Sunday, November 9, 2014

Folk singer/songwriter Karen Cohen has been recording under the name Itasca since 2012, following a move from New York City to Los Angeles. While the majority of her material has been self-released on CD-R and cassette formats, New Images put out her most recent full length Unmoored By The Wind on CD and LP last month. It’s the type of material that goes for a sparser, minimalistic sound, allowing the vocals and acoustic guitar to expand outward and pull the listener in. This can be a risky move if the guitar work or singing isn’t up to the task, but what Itasca has written showcases quite a bit of confidence and has real staying power.

Although folk is one of those genres where a lot of emphasis is placed on vocals, there is a lot of variation to what the instrumental work encompasses. Some bands and solo artists like to add a lot of extra instrumentation around their vocals, but Itasca has taken the opposite approach and stripped things down to only the essentials. Acoustic guitar serves as the sole instrument on Unmoored By The Wind aside from the occasional flute section, and it is used to create sparse melodies that expand outward in a way that pulls the listener in and demands their full attention. There’s a somber, reflective feel to every single note, which suits the vocal style perfectly. But this doesn’t mean that this is an album that simply repeats this same idea for its entirety, as there are a number of moments where the tone takes on a much warmer sound. Itasca also dodges the problem that a lot of folk albums face, which is repetition. Despite the similar delivery, each of the eleven tracks provides distinctive nuances that make them easy to tell apart. The minimalistic approach works in Unmoored By The Wind’s favor, as the songwriting is able to sustain it and ensure that these softer melodies will get stuck in your head for some time to come.

The sparse guitar work places the majority of the focus on the vocals, and this is where Itasca really shines. She delivers a confident performance throughout, and is able to transition between softer, wistful moments and layered vocal work that takes on an ethereal sound. It makes an immediate impression, and there’s a dynamic feel to the performance that helps give many of the songs their identity. I like it the most when Itasca scales things back to their sparsest level, letting her voice become close to a whisper as she tells the listener a story, though the moments where she decides to layer the vocals are just as enticing. It’s always nice to find a singer/songwriter that chooses to completely expose the nuances of their voice to the listener without adding in extra effects or distractions, and it makes Unmoored By The Wind seem truly genuine and heartfelt as you make your way through it.

This is the first time I’ve come across Itasca, and she’s made a stunning first impression. Unmoored By The Wind is able to provide both somber, reflective folk songs and hazier ethereal ones that have a much warmer feel, and the melody provided by both the guitar and vocals are sure to have listeners hooked from the very start. Folk is one of those genres where a lot of singer/songwriters can sound the same, especially if their songwriting can’t sustain the particular variant they are going for, but Itasca has demonstrated with this release that her minimalistic approach has what it takes to stand out. Grab some headphones, throw this one on, and prepare to be swept away by this material.

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