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Sam Cohen takes flight with Yellowbirds

Posted by Scott McLennan  May 22, 2013 05:38 PM

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Sam Cohen brings Yellowbirds to Cambridge on Saturday (Photo by Bernie deChant)

Sam Cohen says 30 minutes of music is plenty to digest in one sitting. Which is true if you're making music as fulfilling as Cohen does on "Songs From the Vanished Frontier," his second outing with Yellowbirds.

"Songs from the Vanished Frontier" is due out May 28 on Royal Potato Family records, and Yellowbirds kick off a string of release shows on Saturday, May 25, at Lily Pad in Cambridge. It's a homecoming of sorts for Brooklynite Cohen, who attended Berklee College of Music and was part of the Boston indie-rock troupe Apollo Sunshine (and that band's Jesse Gallagher happens to book the Saturday night shows at Lily Pad).

Nina Violet and Aetherists are also performing with Yellowbirds at Lily Pad, 1353 Cambridge St., Cambridge.

By 2010, Apollo Sunshine had run its course and Cohen was living in New York City working on songs that he was not sure would find a home But bedroom demos shaped up into his Yellowbirds debut, "The Color," which came out in 2011.

"I was exploring on that first album," Cohen says of the outing that showed him veering off into an interesting blend of roots music, soul, and psychedelic pop. And while "The Color" drew its fair share of critical praise, Cohen kept on working, firming up the ideas that have come to distinguish Yellowbirds as a band that pays as much attention to song craft as to sonics. Cohen also established a firm Yellowbirds lineup with drummer Brian Kantor and the married couple of bassist Annie Nero and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman.

By the tail end of Apollo Sunshine's run, Cohen says he was taking a different approach to songwriting, one that sounds like it comes to fruition on "Songs From the Vanished Frontier."

"I work on the chords and melody first. I get the feeling of the music first and work on lyrics last," Cohen says. "I don't write about something I read in the paper. I just start singing syllables, then turn those into words. A song evolves like a puzzle."

The resulting songs here are neatly constructed but still wide open to interpretation ("the fork in the cul de sac" from "Love Stories" is a personal favorite image I keep trying to wrap my head around).

"Even I have three or four interpretations for any of these songs," Cohen says. "People have told me how uplifting they thought a song was when I thought it was dark and gloomy. I love that."

Cohen sings in a relaxed tone, and the music unfolds in careful measure, with a few squalls and gusts tossed in for texture. Whatever flourishes the band weaves into its music, it does so subtly.

"Production was so in the foreground of what was popular for a long time. I think that idea of how crazy could you get hit a ceiling. Now the performance is more pronounced, and the production more laid back," Cohen says.

Though you'd hardly call the slow surge of the album's title track or bellowing haunt of "The Ceiling" sparse. Despite its 34-minute running time, "Songs From the Vanished Frontier" has a cinematic sweep.

As for the succinctness of the disc, Cohen attributes that to both practical and artistic concerns.

"Thirty minutes is the optimal amount of music for a vinyl pressing. It just sounds better," Cohen says. "And all of those classic albums that inspired me, they were all about this long."

Ahh, but did those classic artists have videos? Well, Yellowbirds have a couple so far. Check 'em out:

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About the author

Scott McLennan is a Boston Globe music correspondent and previously wrote a music and entertainment column for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette for 15 years. After seeing the band Boston in the Boston Garden as a teenager he never looked back and eventually figured out how to be a professional fan. Scott is very good at writing in the dark. This blog is an ongoing discussion about music happening in and around Boston. Scott will be leading the trek across genres looking for new releases and hot shows as well as just checking in with the people who make Boston such a great place to listen. More »
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