Reviews

Technically speaking, "Outsider Art" is art produced by the unschooled and or insane. Technically speaking, Stephen Cohen is neither. The apparently sane Portland-based performing artist, composer, visual artist and songwriter uses acoustic guitar, voice, original sculptural percussion instruments made from metals, woods, recycled and found materials to create records of quiet beauty. Cohen officially studied trombone and holds a Bachelor's Degree in Art from the University of Oregon. Still, the formal definition of Outsider Art is often stretched to include such as Stephen, and there is no doubt that his music shares many of the intriguing traits of the genre: a child-like aura, a hand-made quality, and unfiltered directness.

"It's My Story" begins with a spoken voice introducing a, well, story, over a haunting acoustic guitar figure. Cohen's own voice comes in over the storyteller's, singing, "It's my story, it's my story, you can take it, please don't leave it." Mandolin, bouzouki, drums, and lap steel are added; different voices enter telling fragments of other stories with Stephen singing the refrain over them. The total effect is one of the most emotionally affecting recordings I have experienced in a long time. Cohen's singing voice recalls Randy Newman and John Martyn without sounding quite like either. His guitar playing channels the simpler elements of Ry Cooder and Cooder-influences Lightnin' Hopkins and Joseph Spence. Taken together in a tune like "It's My Story," it adds up to a definitive depiction of the desperate human need to communicate. It is art devoid of pretension.

More sound sculptures than songs, the tunes on this CD share qualities with Cohen's actual sculptures of percussion instruments and guitars, to wit: warmth, whimsy, and an unexpected depth. A narrator talks about surviving a slide down a mountain in an avalanche and it evolves into--what else--a slide guitar piece. Other pieces revolve around talk, war, politics, love, and children. Stephen has done weekly music groups with severely disturbed children, and the combination of love, patience, and deep caring that must be required for such an undertaking infuses his music.

We live in an age where everyone can make a CD, and nearly everyone does. Just when I despair about the landfill this produces, I discover a CD like Stephen & The Talk Talk Band. This work likely wouldn't have been produced in an era of record company gatekeepers. And in the pre-internet/website days, I probably wouldn't have found it even if it had appeared somewhere on vinyl. I have done my best to describe it but you need to experience it. You will either "get it" or you won't. If you do, you will be the richer for it.
-Michael Ross, Puremusic.com (from http://www.puremusic.com/60cohen.html)

Every now and then an artist comes to Woven Wheat Whispers and their music is totally unique from everything else on the site. This is certainly the case with Stephen Cohen, a songwriter, guitarist, composer and visual artist based in Portland, Oregon.  Stephen Cohen and the Talk Talk Band was released in 2004 and from the first play, you realize that there is something different happing here. Blues scales and precise folk finger picking combine in a way that seems to be both organic, but also having an almost physical architectural quality. The opening track, "Talk To Me" is one of many that uses repeated spoken word samples and repeated guitar phrases. While it has a strong folk quality, the work of both Robert Fripp and Steve Reich come to mind.


"Sliding" is the first of many tracks to use narration as an integral part of the piece. Here the story is of a real or imagined experience escaping a landfall in a ravine on the slopes of Mount Hood. The following instrumental passage incorporates a multitude of layered string instruments (and "non instruments"), with some jazz snare drumming to create a dense but crystal clear tune that has a most hypnotic quality.


"A Few Passing Moments" is an totally instrumental piece that somehow manages to bring to mind the accurate playing of Leo Kottke, whilst simultaneously incorporating unusual rhythmic percussive instruments and (later) a jazz bass line.   If you are perhaps a little worried that the album sounds a little too "arty", please don't be. Take a listen to "Dusty Old Freight Train" which is essentially a straightforward acoustic blues. Don't expect a plodding 12 bar though, this is firey and intense and contains some sensational guitar playing and top notch drumming.


This is an album that deserves to be heard by a wide cross section of genuine music lovers. It takes folk music as it's base but is not restricted by the barriers some wish to impose on music. It incorporates structures and techniques from a broad spectrum of musical sources to become a collection of songs that will appeal to fans of folk, jazz, rock, blues and new acoustic music. It deftly sidesteps all clichés and avoids the pitfalls (i.e. non musicality) of much of the avant-garde folk music that has been released in recent years. This is an intelligent and well thought out album that stands head and shoulders above much contemporary American work

-Woven Wheat Whispers (from http://www.wovenwheatwhispers.co.uk/folk_community/pc/viewPrd.asp?idcategory=303&idproduct=336 )

Children's Music That Rocks
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
***Stephen Cohen***
A red-jacketed band of half-human, half-animal musicians comes marching down the street, accompanied by a couple of oversized birds ... what an awesome introduction to Stephen Cohen's Here Comes the Band! With a smoky-voiced delivery, vocal phrasing a little like Rickie Lee Jones, and an intimate coffee house presentation, Portland resident Stephen Cohen whams, tickles, and strums the strings of his guitar, which acts as much a percussion instrument as a keeper of melody, intertwined with the tinkles, knocks, and wobbles of his handmade musical gear. Rhythms are suspended and sometimes done away with entirely in several songs, tying together everything in a cohesive dream-like collection of thoughts put to music. Sound too heavy for a kids' album? Au contraire, my little ones, for that's the amazing thing about this CD: yer tiny kids can sing right along with every single song on the album, while grownups can bask in the glow of Cohen's musical inventiveness. Even though Cohen has been recording since 1979, Here Comes the Band is his first album specifically for kids.

Soon-to-be Toddler Time classics include the mantra-like "Give Me That Toy!", the boppity "Mr. Knickerbocker" and "Baseball, Baseball". The controlled chaos of "The Elephant Walk" mirrors, coincidentally, sounds produced by bands of the Elephant 6 collective (Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, etc.), while the ethereal "Rain, Rain, Rain" fully utilizes Cohen's self-created percussion inventions. The three-part thread "Here Comes the Band / There Goes the Band / Sleepy Dreams (of the Band)" that runs through the CD gives Cohen a chance to name check his old group, the Talk Talk Band. By using a few tunes culled from some of his grownup albums, real life and fiction and Many Hats, Cohen shows his trust in kids' taste and intelligence. He's not making music for children, but just making music.

Not only do you get Cohen's wonderful songs, the CD is also packaged with a lyrics booklet full of artwork by Christopher Shotola-Hardt, instructions on making your own instruments, and explanations of everyone's duties in the making of a CD ("The producer chooses the songs..."). Check out more of Cohen's work, it's pretty inspiring and amazing.
Warren Truitt-(from http://kidsmusicthatrocks.blogspot.com/2006/12/stephen-cohen.html)

Based in Portland, Oregon Stephen Cohen has been making art of one sort or another for nearly 30 years. Creating music, musical instruments, and visual art, Cohen integrates these three into his performing career.

This is exactly the kind of person that should be making kids' music.

On his recently-released Here Comes The Band, Cohen gives reason to be optimistic for the future of music for families. A heady collection of multi-instrumental folk music, Cohen weaves together an album that flows seamlessly from start to finish. The opening title track serves as the prelude to the whole album, with a melody that pops up at least a couple more times later on in the album. It segues almost imperceptibly into "Give Me That Toy!," which, thankfully, doesn't tell the young listener to ask politely -- it's written from the child's perspective. And from there into the traditional children's rhyme "Mr. Knickerbocker," in which Cohen's distinctive voice (ever-so-slightly nasally and slightly-less-slightly raspy) repeats the phrase "bobbity, bobbity, bobbity-boo" until it gets lodged in your brain. Another favorite song of mine is "The Planetarium," which although is written from the point of the parent taking his son to the planetarium is written with the words of a child ("Then a baby cried and had to go outside / While we watched the lights / Stretch across the black dome sky.")

To talk about the lyrics is to miss the album's chief allure, which is its music. As noted above, some of the musical transitions are seamless. Which isn't to say this is an entirely low-key album. "There Goes the Band" lists 13 people playing or singing on the track. "The Elephant Walk" sounds not a little bit like Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk." The lullabies at the end of the album are sweet as well.

I can't review this album without noting the album packaging, which is one of the best I've seen this year. Lyrics, gorgeous illustrations by Christopher Shotola-Hardt, activities are in the liner notes, along with an explanation of what various people on the album (producer, engineer, visual artist) actually do.

The album is most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 9, though it may create fans of parents who are 39. You can hear samples of 5 songs at the album's CD Baby page and hear "Baseball, Baseball" here.

Stephen Cohen's album is a little bit like what might happen if Mr. David and Randy Newman decided to record a kids' album live on Prairie Home Companion. Here Comes the Band establishes a mood and a world that will draw in you and your kids. It may not be the album your family listens to every day for a month, but it will be one you listen to occasionally for many years. Recommended.
-
http://www.zooglobble.com/archives/2006/11/ )(Scroll down the page to see the review)

January 31, 2007
Here Comes the Band
One of the more unique and sophisticated kids' albums I've come across in the last year is Stephen Cohen's Here Comes the Band.

Although Cohen has a long career as a musician, songwriter, and artist-in-residence for numerous schools, Here Comes the Band is his first kids' album. Cohen has a somewhat Zanesian (did I just invent a new word?) approach to kids' music -- friends and family joining in to play or sing along, laid-back vocals, a folksy singer-songwriter style. But I'm guessing Cohen is also a fan/follower of composer and instrument-builder Harry Partch. Through the use of sculptural percussion instruments and other sounds, Cohen incorporates sound-as-music, much like Brian Wilson did on Pet Sounds.

The title track, which opens the album, sets an intimate tone; and Cohen's voice is raspy, but warm and conversational. The album, overall, is very mellow and sleepy, and the production is reminiscent of Tom Waits. Songs like "Give Me That Toy!" and "Baseball, Baseball" are a bit less mellow than than the rest, but I found myself waiting for a more upbeat, energetic track that never came. In fact, the album winds down with not one or two, but four lullabies.

The album's liner notes include brief explanations on the various instruments played on each song, including several home-made percussion instruments. There are also simple instructions for playing slide guitar on a regular acoustic guitar, and illustrated how-to's for building your own instruments.

Cohen's creative use of sound, combined with sophisticated rhythms and lyrics that express the wonder and innocence of childhood, make music that could easily appeal to listeners of any age. Listen to sample tracks and order the cd here.
-(from http://lovelydavis.blogspot.com/2007/01/here-comes-band.html)



A little eccentric, a little odd, this male indie folk is clever, fresh and crisp as a winter wind. Mixed with bits of spoken word and storytelling, shreds of blues and bluesy delivery, his reserved, smoky approach instantly sucks you into the texture, making you part of the scenery and part of the story. Here is a guy who has an incredible ear for that perfect little effect, that single little coloristic touch that makes a song unforgettable whether it be a single chime a pan flute or a guitar slide. His knack for finding those tiny little sound worlds, which are mostly overlooked by composers going for the bigger hit, are captured in this roughly elegant, raw and edgy album of visionary guitar-based writing.
-CD Baby (from http://cdbaby.com/cd/stephencohen2 )

Having purchased both of stephen cohen's albums available on cdbaby, i felt compelled to write a review, considering how brilliant they are. real life and fiction is a near flawless album. textural guitar patterns and experimental percussion work together to create beautiful melodies for stephen to sing over. my personal favorite song is thomas. buy this cd for that song alone.
-CD Baby (from http://cdbaby.com/cd/stephencohen2 )

Art in all its parts

Stephen Cohen's music sounds simple, but to play "Rain, Rain, Rain" at a recent concert required the help of no fewer than five standing audience members, plus another two or three in the front row playing accompaniment on sets of tiny chimes.

"Now I need those back at the end of the song," Cohen reminded the crowd at Performance Works NorthWest, an innovative community rehearsal and performance space in Southeast Portland. The folks standing held either rain machines -- nail-studded wood blocks that tinkled quietly when played with a stick -- or big sheets of copper and brass, and a smaller sheet of silver. Big Rain, Big Wind and Little Wind.

"OK, go ahead and practice," he told the sheet metallistes, who already had begun to rumble and whang their instruments with unsettling alacrity. "Now, the guitars will start out and you guys keep still. Then the little chimes and the rain blocks come in, then the wind, but not too loud, otherwise you'll drown out everything."

Somehow, it all worked -- the song progressed from the fingerpicked guitar melody and Cohen's vocal (little more than "I've been out in the rain" repeated) and weathered some exuberant rumbles from the wind department, only to subside gently, not with a bang but a tinkle.

"Just toss 'em anywhere," he says, dismissing his impromptu accompanists after the song. "They're all metal and you can't break 'em -- I used to have some glass chimes, until they went the way of all glass."

Cohen is a great one for all manner of musical impedimenta, which he hauls around in a big duffel custom-built by a guy who makes hot rod upholstery and body bags. Cohen calls himself a "sculptural percussionist," which explains the profusion of stuff around his folding chair.

By the time he sings a charming little ditty called "Baseball," he's won over the crowd for the night.
"OK, in the chorus of this song, I'm gonna need you guys to make noise like you would at a baseball game -- just yell and shout."

He moves a green canvas nearer his chair. It's a painting of "the Green Monster," the imposing wall at Boston's Fenway Park -- and a percussion instrument in this setting. "You've got a glove, you wear a hat," Cohen sings, "you hit the ball with the . . ."

Whack! He smacks the painting's frame with a drumstick as he moves into the singsong chorus, "Baseball, baseball, we like baseball. . . ." The crowd enters into its yelling assignment with a fine ferocity, and once again the song becomes more than the sum of its shouts.

"I've been doing a lot of kids' concerts through the Arts Council," Cohen said after the show, "and they're very interactive shows. I'm incorporating that in my regular performances."

Which would explain the seated guy who kept time by dribbling a basketball during the last of "Let's All Root for the Home Team," and Linda Austin's dance to an instrumental during which she used two bicycle kickstands as maracas. Or young Adam Frazell's imitation of a train whistle on the Hmong pipes during "The Dusty Old Freight Train," and Christopher Shotola-Hardt's bouzouki parts on several songs, including one sung in Hebrew and English.

By the time he got to "The Closing List," Cohen's music was making complete sense. That dark little tune was minimalism at its best: The images of shutting down after that last night were sung in a world-weary drone that would've done Tom Waits proud. The sparse, compelling accompaniment was what the song needed to make it a jewel-like still life, as if Van Eyck had painted the death of a dream.

And perhaps what I was feeling that night was gratitude for the human scale of Cohen's music and the sense of community engendered in the audience. In a culture that spawned Britney in all her marketing-driven, intra-modally synergistic glory, it's nice to know that guys still sit down with guitars and get people to sing along, and that there are still small, quirky spaces such as Performance Works NorthWest where art can happen unexpectedly.
-John Foyston, The Oregonian, January 18, 2002.

The song espouses the beauty and function of Portland's bridges and shares a similarity with a Paul Simon tune: poignant simplicity colored with a wry wit.

Cohen invites Portlanders to celebrate the release of his one-song CD, a five-minute ode to the bridges that bears the same name as the song.

Game participants are asked to meet Cohen under the Steel Bridge on the Eastbank Esplanade. From here, they'll be led to a mystery location overlooking the city's bridges, where Cohen will perform the song.

A longtime Bridge City resident, Cohen has carved a distinctive niche for himself on the local music scene by making the percussion instruments that augment his guitar and vocal skills. Made of such materials as brass, bronze, wood and found objects, the sculptural instruments allow Cohen unlimited musical creativity and a way to involve the audiences. Viewers might be given chimes or a sheet of metal to play in accompaniment.

Cohen, who has won national awards for his songwriting, typically presents interactive concerts such as this.

Cohen says he's played "Bridges of This Town" in other cities, but it may just be "a Portland thing." "It means more to the people of Portland," he says. "If you've ever gotten onto the wrong bridge, or waited for one to lift, you understand."
-Jill Spitznass,The Portland Tribune, June 14, 2002

Well, Excuse Me, President IS a great song!
-Michel Dubois, Rue D'Auteuil, Quebec City, CKRL 89.1, January , 2005

The other piece I really wanted to play would get me suspended from the air, as we find ourselves once again living through what what
Dalton Trumbo called "The Time of the Toad."
-Ron Alden, Death Valley Radio, WNTI, New Jersey
(Ron has played several selections from my last 2 CDs on his wonderful, eclectic show- I think he is referring to Excuse Me, President as the one that he can't play).

"As a musician, Stephen Cohen wears many hats--singer, composer, guitarist, percussionist. Hence, the title of his outstanding new album, "Many Hats. Its 12 selections mark Cohen as an accomplished composer and endearing performer stepping out on the national stage. Underlying all tracks is Cohen,s distinctive guitar picking- a whispery, lyrical style that speaks from the heart. He has a gentle, sensuous voice and provides shimmering percussion as well. He is a fresh talent to be reckoned with."
-Fred Crafts, KUGN Morning Show, Eugene, OR

"Mr. Cohen is a musical storyteller who so intimately and convincingly shares his vision that his listeners can,t help being whisked along on the journey... He employs bells, glass, hanging brass, tubes.. whatever the musical tool, Stephen involves himself in its creation and arrangement for both the visual and musical impact... allowing him to perform full range of emotion, to experiment and expand his art."
-Sharon McBride, State of the Arts

"Acoustic guitar virtuoso Stephen Cohen creates percussion instruments that are as unique to look at as they are to listen to."
-Doug Hadden, Evening Times , R.I.

"Stephen Cohen mixes acoustic guitar with his own handmade smorgasbord of Eastern percussion instruments welded together like some sort of Dr. Suess contraption (a "fo-fo-famfoogler" perhaps). It's an act all the Whos down in Whoville would dig- ambient, worldly, quirky folk. "Cohen's musician-inventor tag was recognized with an award at this year's Kerrville New Folk Concert. His new disc, real life and fiction, offers a good helping of his eerie take on folk Americana. His voice, a mix of Bill Morrissey's ragged growl and Rickie Lee Jones, scat stuttering, spars with his guitar playing, which dodges fast fretwork for the different shade of inventiveness and edge of John Fahey's quiet, quirky ramblings. Live, his handmade "sculptural percussion" instruments have got to be seen to be believed. "
-Bill Smith, Willamette Week, Portland,OR

"Cohen's guitar playing throughout is original. His vocals, with their unusual phrasing and evocative lyrics, are a pleasure."
-Tony Albino, What's Happening, Eugene, OR

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