“Ampersand” showed such promise. But we can’t all be Ian Williams.
Mylets, the one-man-band pseudonym of guitar-texturist Henry Kohen, aspires to attain the heights of Williams’ pedal-frenzied, signature-shifting genius with groups like Don Caballero and Battles. But Mylets’ debut, Retcon, falls short, plain and simple.
Back to “Ampersand,” though. Earlier this year, Kohen’s label, Sargeant House, posted one of its signature Glassroom Sessions of Kohen playing the character-song to YouTube and, wonder wonder, the clip racked up some 67,000 views within a day or two. Not bad. Not bad at all. Anyone watching Kohen can see why; the young player – if he was born the year Don Cab debuted with For Respect in ’93, I’d be surprised — seemingly has more guitar effects pedals than there are frets on the guitar neck, and he knows how to navigate them. Being a uber-player with effects, though, is not, as they say, the whole enchilada. You might know composition but be a dud when it comes to songwriting. Such is the case with Retcon.
The first thing listeners might notice about the debut album, available via digital download and vinyl, is that it suffers from a short-sightedness of vision. I hope Kohen recorded this on a basement deck – in other words: not in a studio proper – because the whole thing feels flat, like it was recorded with a microphone and a couple of extension cords and a computer’s metronome clicking nearby. The drums, all electronic, are overly synthetic and thud instead of pop, the bass is a low-in-the-mix afterthought and the guitar, which one is to assume is the headliner here, feels mostly like overdubbed noodling on a four-track. But it’s also not a lo-fi wonder; one almost wishes at times that Kohen showed all the bumps and cracks in a bid for sincerity, but Retcon is a student in hitting every note square on the head. In short: this is a record made by someone too young for the ragged D.I.Y. of the 80s and 90s and built on the online been-there-done-that D.I.Y. of the millennial generation.
The songs, themselves, aren’t so much verses, choruses and verses with bridges, et cetera – or even, heaven forbid!, commentary on the form – but a variety of textures and melody without spine. Kohen tries his best, constantly unleashing a post-teen, vaguely emo shout-bark over his refrains, but screaming about things doesn’t make them any more spirited. It just points out how much acid the guitar he’s throwing in your face is lacking. In other words – it’s interesting wallpaper. It just don’t move.
Now, now, now – the kid’s got potential. I said it earlier and I’ll say it again: Kohen knows how to navigate those pedals and that’s what makes the YouTube videos so compelling. In them, you can see him darting between percolators and rhythm-monsters and all sorts of whiz-bang effects that make his guitar strings sound like aluminum foil; when he clicks this or taps that, magic ensues and you can connect with the humanity. On disc, without seeing the reach for the next pop or zip, it just sounds like a bag of tricks without someone working the magic.
The songs on Retcon also lack any kind of thematic glue. “Marikoriko Pond” is intensely literal, aiming to brew up a mix of Asian flare and post-rock goodness, but it’s tough to tell whether its interwoven notes are a tribute to its subject or a reductionist tableau. “Hungover Tehran,” one song later, seems removed from its subject matter, and isn’t a picture postcard of Mullahs Gone Wild so much as more guitar textures with random lineage. “Seven Diamonds Plus One,” the album opener, has its moments, as does “Cate B/Tuition” – the best the disc has to offer, with its skittering drums, syncopated vocals and interesting guitar effects – but the rest of the record just doesn’t hold together.
Bottom line: Kohen needs a band and he needs to cut loose and he needs to ask the ladies to hold the corners of their dresses as the wind lashes through the avenue. Without the singer-songwriter chops, Mylets falls into the “all technique” category. Kohen’s an interesting, maybe even unique, guitarist and he deserves some play. He really does. Anyone who’s seen this kid play acoustic guitar – without the pedals, he’s left to let his fingers do the talking on songs like “Slow Walker,” another YouTube gem – knows you shouldn’t mess with him. Retcon, though, is taking him nowhere fast.