Many bassists will release an album of solo material but ‘solo’ usually means that the bassist is the focal point of the album and there are additional musicians featured throughout the album to support the star. It’s not too often that you see, literally, a solo bassist album where the bassist is the only musician featured on the album. Josh Cohen’s Out of the Bassment is one of those albums.
For fans of technically complex and compositionally dense bass guitar-centric music, this is the album for you. Cohen’s first solo release marries 14 songs across a handful of generes and styles together for a thick package of low end enjoyment. Clocking in at just over 45 minutes of music, there is a lot here for bassists or just fans of low-key instrumental music to digest and enjoy.
While preparing for this review, I wanted to know a little bit more about this album. I did a little bit of digging around Cohen’s Facebook page and found a trove of videos including one supporting the release of this album. Cohen explains that he wanted to explore the sonic possibilities of bass guitar as a solo instrument and that each track forced him to think about his approach the electric bass differently. Many times, he explained, he would need to look at the bass in a way that would be “counterintuitive to the way [he] was taught”. He concluded the video by wishing that this album would “expand the listener’s perceptions” of what was possible on bass and in music. While many artists may do interviews in support of a project, where someone asks them questions about their project, it’s certainly different to hear what the artist wants the listener to get out of the album straight from their mouth in an intimate and personal way like what Cohen did with his Facebook video.
From start to finish this album has a lot of strong points and offers a lot to listeners. Conversely, there are a also many drawbacks that Cohen falls into with his solo release.
Out of the Bassment: The Review
There is no question, Josh Cohen is a skilled bass player. From tapping to slapping, finger picking and beyond – often in the same song, Out of the Basement captures Cohen’s musical and technical strengths and compositional ear as well in a single collection clocking in at almost an hour of music.
Within moments of turning on the album, the very first thing the listener will catch is the crispness of the album. The mixing and mastering from Tristan Henderson is immaculate. The details of Cohen’s playing come clean and resonant and sound as clean and resonant through Macbook speakers as they do through high quality headphones (I should know – I listened to the album through both mediums). Everything from the harmonics, strummed chords and single note lines come off pristine and detailed, allowing for the listener to capture all the details of Cohen’s playing in full spectrum.
Within the first few seconds of the first track, the listener will also instantly understand the breadth of Cohen’s technical ability. The album starts off with an arrangement of Bach’s ‘Prelude in C Major’, a challenging piece for any musician on an instrument, and the arrangements and original pieces only get more complex and detailed including ‘Two Part Interventions 13’ and ‘14’ , the album’s title track and ‘Spiders and Redwoods’.
Out of the Bassment also features two very different and very challenging covers: Seal’s ‘Kiss from a Rose and Derek and the Dominos’ ‘Layla’. ‘Kiss from a Rose’ closes out the album and does so in a fitting way. ‘Kiss from a Rose’ leaves the listener feeling finished; as if the album truly is complete after this song. Cohen’s arrangement of this song captures Seal’s vocal melodies as well as the important elements of the harmony of the backing track, delivering a touching resolution to a fantastic work.
Conversely, Cohen’s ‘Layla’ is certainly the weaker of the two covers. While Cohen should be applauded for this ambitious arrangement of a very difficult rock song, this was the song that felt the most in need of additional musicians and a more robust arrangement. The original recording of ‘Layla’ is a fiery, soulful song featuring two of music’s most celebrated guitar heroes, Eric Clapton and Duane Allman. Cohen’s arrangement doesn’t capture any of the fire of the original recording or any of the nuances of the recordings including the soaring chorus/softer verse duality which is, arguably, the song’s most important feature. Cohen’s version feels more like a New Age music adaptation of the rock song with no one part of the song elevating too much higher than the last musical idea and the only nod to the original song itself being the iconic ‘Layla’ motif at the 45 second mark. Needless to say, finishing this song and moving into ‘Spiders and Redwoods’ leaves something to be desired after listening.
The hallmark of Cohen’s playing is his ability to craft touching melodies. ‘Song for Hannah’, the second-to-last song on the album, is gorgeous song. It almost feels like a song that could serve as background music for a walk through a forest on a sunny day after the morning dew clears away.
Cohen’s strengths also lie in his ability to trick the listener into thinking the bass is another instrument entirely. ‘Tappin’ Away’ and ‘Chega de Saudade’ are the showcase examples. Each of these songs sound like a ‘50s gypsy jazz piece done by Django Reinhardt himself. For brief moments on this album, Cohen turns his bass into an old Gibson hollow body electric guitar, and treats the listener to another layer of what the bass guitar is sonically capable of when handled correctly.
The second thing a listener might notice is the fact that the album does not start off with a bang. Rather, the album starts off with subtler, gentler songs. It’s not until 3 songs in, until track 3, ‘Slap Marcus’, does the album feel more energized and more in your face.
Solo Bass Guitar – Literally Solo Bass Guitar
Moreover, the listener will also notice that this album is solo bass. Literally – solo bass guitar. No other instruments, no guest musicians, and, interestingly enough, no percussion or drums.
While Cohen’s technical or compositional skills are very apparent, it’s also very clear where Cohen’s musical strengths as they return over and over again throughout the album. The album as an entire piece of work showcases original pieces, covers and arrangements that all sound and feel very ethereal, very sweet and almost New Age music-esque. The album doesn’t showcase very much dynamic or even musical variation. Though a myriad of different technical skills are presented to the listener, these skills are wrapped up in one or all of the adjectives mentioned above. As a listener, the ‘sameness’ from track to track makes Cohen’s work feel stale in a way that work this detailed and technical should not.
Certain tracks beg for a drum set or at the very least a shaker or hand percussion to keep the song moving along or to compliment the ideas that Cohen has already laid out to the listener. ‘Slap Marcus’ is a fantastic displays of Cohen’s slapping ability but feel severely hampered because of the lack of drums to punctuate and articulate Cohen’s funky ideas. With the exception of ‘Slap Crackle Pop which uses an inventive percussive bass technique coined by Cohen called Crack Bass, there’s really nothing here for distinct, percussive percussion to compliment Cohen’s already admirable playing.
Overall, this is an album for bassists, jazz enthusiasts and bassists looking to learn and listen to and from one of bass guitar’s promising new talents. There is a lot to learn from and enjoy here for bassists looking to learn a thing or two about composition, theme development and technical ability.
As a collective work of songs, there is a lot of backtracking and re-treading that Cohen traps himself in. The whole album really only explores 3 kinds of music: classical arrangement, funk and ambient. Part of me wishes that Cohen pushed past these 3 styles and experimented more with additional musicians on this record or even programmed out some drums to use on these tracks. Perhaps not a full kit – but something complimentary.
For bassists looking for something more than just bass guitar, this might not be the album for you. There are more than a handful of points on this album where the songs begged for an additional musician covering some kind of percussion to keep the song moving forward and to prevent the songs from feeling stale. However, for the bassist looking for an album where the bass is not only the main instrument but the only instrument, leaving the listener with an unfettered listening experience and having to sort through other instruments to find the bass’s playing nuances, this is certainly for you. The listener hears Cohen – all of Cohen – all the time and can enjoy the richness of his playing and learn from his technical abilities.
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