From its surreal title and occult cover art to its grand buffet of vintage sounds and period production moves, Sam Kogon’s Psychic Tears is a lavish, painstakingly detailed work of modern-retro guitar pop. But what distinguishes the Brooklyn artist from the psychedelic pop herd is not his access to Mellotrons, Vox Continentals, and Russian fuzz boxes. It is Kogon’s vast and fluid command of chamber pop harmony and arrangement. It’s his long-arc melodic genius and his sweet, understated crooning—the real reasons why we revere Sir Paul, Brian Wilson, The Shins, or New York’s own baroque pop institution, The Left Banke, for whom Kogon served as lead singer during a short-lived reunion in 2015.
Psychic Tears sounds robustly old school without much at all in the way of explicit references (though the chugging boogie of the delightful Marc Bolan homage “I’m Letting Go” makes a brief exception). Kogon’s retro is seldom studied or doctrinal; this is just the way he hears it, his natural voice as a composer/arranger. Many standout tracks depart from the period vibe entirely, notably “I Was Always Talking,” a timeless pop duet with Frankie Cosmos; and the nervy new wave rocker “I Could Kick Myself,” which channels the barely controlled downhill energy of Elvis Costello and the Attractions circa This Year’s Model.
A native of New York’s mid-Hudson valley (site of the currently hopping Kingston and Hudson scenes), Kogon’s family has owned a pawn shop for over 100 years, perhaps accounting for the unstable and fritzed out guitar tones in evidence all over Psychic Tears. The record balances its embarrassment of exquisite melodies with a nasty punk urgency and lots of sonic horseplay, speaking to the rich contradictions in Kogon’s heritage: His grandfather Lonnie played Drums in the 1950’s rock and roll group The Thunderbirds. On his mother’s side, he is related to Arthur Fiedler, the legendary conductor of the Boston Pops.
Released not long after his skills were authenticated by several collaborations with The Beach Boys’ Al Jardine, Kogon’s pop-wunderkind 2015 debut Before You Knew Me attracted the attention of the Beyond Beyond Is Beyond label, leading to this short-order follow up and a big step up in production values. Recorded at the Figure 8 studio of NYC-scene stalwart Shazad Ismaily (Lou Reed, Tom Waits), Psychic Tears was produced by Celestial Shore’s Sam Owens and mixed by Gabe Wax (Speedy Ortiz, Here We Go Magic, Beirut, The War On Drugs, Cas McCombs). Kogon wisely kept his core ensemble together for this effort, leveraging their road-tested chemistry and the inspired fancy-bits string parts provided by longtime collaborator Finnegan Shanahan.