Second albums are fraught with peril for many musicians, but not for Sam Cohen. For Songs From the Vanished Frontier, the Yellowbirds leader had a clearer idea of what he wanted than he did on his band’s 2011 debut, The Color.
“Writing for that record was very much about finding a sound that I was into, and with this one, I think I had a clear sense of what the aesthetic of this band is,” Cohen tells Rolling Stone. “It was a gradual process. When it very first began, it was just making recordings in my apartment. I didn’t have a band name, wasn’t playing live, didn’t have a group; it could be anything, and it was pretty disparate stuff.”
What Cohen describes as musical experimentation coalesced into Yellowbirds, a group that mixes rock, folk and weird bits of R&B filtered through a psychedelic lens. The band has grown from what was essentially a one-man outlet for Cohen following the better part of a decade spent playing guitar and singing with the Boston group Apollo Sunshine. After cobbling together an ad hoc band for the first album, Cohen found a full-time group of musicians for Songs From the Vanished Frontier: drummer Brian Kantor, bassist Annie Nero and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman.
“They’re like my closest friends here in New York, and I’m just in love with the dynamic of what we have right now,” Cohen says.
The new songs have a hazy summertime feel on arrangements that surround Cohen’s reverb-soaked vocals with jangling guitars, propulsive basslines and lush string charts. He’s reluctant to dive too deeply into what, exactly, the songs are about, though he says he tends to find new ways to explore the topics that most interest him.
“If I could say in one sentence what all my songs say, it would negate all of those songs,” Cohen says. “I can’t really sum it up. I think a theme in my music is about accepting the world as it is and trying to figure out how to go on from there. I think a lot about my place on the earth and the earth’s place in the universe.”
Although he often writes from an autobiographical perspective – “A lot of times I’m just working through a problem,” Cohen says – he rarely writes about romantic relationships.
“I feel like I write about friendships more than romances, actually, though the songs end up sounding like they’re about romances,” he says. “I’ve been married and with my wife for six years now, and we don’t have a tumultuous relationship, so there’s not really a lot of conflict to write from. It’s pretty steady and even and great, and makes my life wonderful. But I have a hard time wringing an exciting song out of it, for some reason.”