Danny Cohen

Shades of Dorian Gray

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While it's true that California outsider musician and artist Danny Cohen is an acquired taste, he's so damned charming, one can't help but wonder why everybody who hears his work doesn't warm to it. Cohen could care less, however; he has new sounds, textures and sonic idiosyncrasies to explore. All of this said, Shades of Dorian Gray is easily his most accessible offering to date, while keeping its rampant experimentalism firmly intact. It's warm, inviting, and at times funny, harrowing, sad, moving and puzzling. Shades of Dorian Gray is the sound of an artist who has no idea what it means to grow old. Recording a good piece of the album on an Ampex four-track, as well as in Ralph Carney's studio, the set reflects on everything from television heroes of yesteryear like Ward Cleaver, Ozzie Nelson, Andy Taylor, and Barney Fife (on the gorgeous album-opener "Prayer in the Black and White," a slow, skid row gospel hymn) make appearances not so much as ghosts, but as Gothic American archetypes -- which is a good way to describe a fair chunk of the music here too (check "Vertigo" for an example). "Palm of My Hand," is a futuristic and speculative gospel eulogy for himself turned pop song complete with church organ, acoustic and electric guitars, and a gorgeous violin line played by Jimmy Borsdorf. Shades of Dorian Gray articulates the visual artist in Cohen more than his previous two Anti outings (both of which are excellent as well). The touch on all of these songs is painterly, layered carefully, and spoken in a language that is rich with images, not metaphors. The colors and shapes stand on their own, and make up a unified whole in each tune. Blues, country, gospel, barroom exotica, folk, R&B and jazz are all wrapped in a meld that is seductive and quizzical -- Cohen's heroes are almost always the forgotten, the never were's, the not yets and never will be's, and himself, of course. He an outsider whose art has nothing to do with craziness or happenstance: he knows exactly what he's doing. He's an outsider who has never played the game, and who would rather make his music or paint or write on the margins because he's free to do what he wants there. On this pursuit, whether he's singing about accurately future predictions from the past in a country lilt with a bluesman's authority, or the angular, all-but off-kilter, "Death Waltz" with its swirling organ and stumbling piano, the sinister "The Fall," or the slightly nightmarish ballad "Noel Blaine," (in which Cohen decides to let go a burp in the middle of a sensitive lyric) the effect is one of a tenderness that can be comprehended if not so easily embraced. Cohen cares about his characters, and uses his eccentric, art bruit musical structures to make them both smaller and larger than life. As usual, Cohen comes up with an album that is underwhelmingly dazzling and edgy, but his angles have been softened this time out, as has his ear. He writes with an actual tenderness this time, and that emotion graces everything here. Shades of Dorian Gray is Cohen's most realized and embraceable outing yet.

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