Tim Cohen is on a songwriting tear. He's a central figure in San Francisco's very crowded, quite prolific psych-folk-garage scene, working on nearly enough projects to fill one of the bins at Amoeba, the record store that has employed him and many of his bandmates over the years. With his acid-pop act, the Fresh & Onlys, he has released two LPs, two 7-inch singles, and two cassette tapes in 2009 alone. This year he has also recorded with his other bands, 3 Leafs and Window Twins, and guested on Sonny & the Sunsets' upcoming album. And he made time to dabble in black metal, releasing a CD under the name Amocoma.
Cohen has worked in so many musical incarnations, and with so many different players, that even when he goes solo, he's never really alone. But his most interesting project, the recent The Two Sides of Tim Cohen, is one of his best recordings yet — and a highlight of the psych-folk genre in general. That's in large part because, when he isn't backed by a handful of buddies from 3 Leafs, the Fresh & Onlys, and his old band Black Fiction on this record, Cohen is surrounded by ghosts, making his solo debut haunting in every sense of the word. It's a blend of the strange and sweet like no other.
The Two Sides of Tim Cohen, a riff on the double album the package contains, is peppered with references to apparitions of the spiritual and supernatural kind. The otherworldly and fantastical imagery is apparent in his song titles ("Amazing Visions," "Haunted Hymns"), and in his lyrics: fever-dream poetry where he sings of strolling with angels and birds flying through his eardrums. But Cohen evokes phantoms beyond the ones he spells out for listeners.
Cohen's wall of sound is vaporous. His bedroom recordings float with harmonic echoes, percussion picking up on a breeze, and fluttering melodies that disappear one moment and glow brightly the next. He has arranged the songs into fine webs, leaving openings through which you can often hear his breath against the microphone.
The lo-fi psych-folk artist isn't an endangered species these days, as everyone from Ariel Pink to members of Grizzly Bear paints kaleidoscopic pop with fuzzy brush strokes. But Cohen's double album is in a class of its own; he unveils unusual sentiments on this eerie foundation. He's a lover and a loner here. "Fighters and lovers are the same as each other," he sings on "Warriors and Clowns."
"I Swear to God" is a grand standout, an ode that assigns a good friend a keeper of a higher power. The opening lines, "I swear to God, somebody up there cares about you/And you're about to find out who," are led by an insistent piano melody and drum stomp. Cohen's voice trails off in this tale of someone taken to an early grave before Cohen could teach him one last song. The allusions to death are tucked within a ballad so tender it could almost double as a love song. It's followed by a drop in mood for the mournful, Cohen sounding weary in his whispered lyrics on "Burden of Being." He names off his body parts, worn out from wandering, before he gets to his heart, put at rest on a woman. And in the next moment — the arrival of "All of These Rooms Are So Small," he offers the slightly cheerier announcement "Hello, my family, I am over here and doing well./My heroes have all returned to thank me for nothing" over a distant horn section and tropical beat. Coated in such disorienting music, these emotional swings show a songwriter constantly in flux.
Each of Cohen's projects benefits from his loose grip on song structure and his looser poetic allusions, but this solo gig is the best way to experience the multifaceted musician. Left to his own devices, he is simultaneously creepy ("Let's Black Out") and calming in his steady, even-keeled delivery. Is he a blues man cooing about unrequited love and talking turtles ("Rock of Gibraltar")? Or a mortal in awe of the higher powers at work when you really fall for someone ("Unjeweled Splendor")? The Two Sides of Tim Cohen is a haunted mystery, the kind you don't need to resolve. His fans have helped sell out the first pressing already, content to linger in the shadows he casts from inside the city's progressive lo-fi psych scene.