Much like the artwork on its cover, Zagg, the debut LP from Los Angeles singer-songwriter Jackie Cohen is a beautifully messy creation. Rich in color and radiant in sound, the record is a poised display of penmanship, propelled by Cohen’s infatuation with turning unlikely phrases into mesmerizing poetry.
Her previous two EPs – the brilliant and whimsical Tacoma Night Terror Part 1: I’ve Got the Blues and Part 2: Self-Fulfilling Elegy – placed her center stage, presenting her diaristic confessions to an audience for the first time. Tracks like “Make U Sick” and “I Hate My Body” peered into Cohen’s tormented psyche and world of self-inflicted insecurities, simultaneously establishing her musical prowess as both quirky and nostalgic.
Subsequently, Zagg is an open book of mature self-reflections. Titled after Cohen’s high school nickname, the album is a hodgepodge of love songs and personal meditations, embellished with dreamy pop arrangements and bustling instrumentation courtesy of the slick Spacebomb House Band. Cohen’s cast of musical characters ranges far and wide, spearheaded by husband Jonathan Rado and Spacebomb founder and acclaimed indie auteur Matthew E. White. The wide array of contributors speaks to the dysfunctional allure of the music on Zagg, a zany collage of pop, rock and country that is as inventive as it is unabashedly retro.
From the get-go, Cohen’s punchy pengame is on full display with the swift and to-the-point opener “FMK” – a danceable garage jam that sets the bassline for Zagg’s many memorable hooks. In a similarly aggressive vein, “Get Out” prolongs the record’s initial adrenaline rush thanks to a racing medley of erratic string arrangements and industrial percussion, with Cohen’s juvenile shout providing a sense of grace to the track’s unapologetic recklessness.
Topically, the record’s lyrical themes follow a relatively straight line, but the album’s musical direction is pleasantly unpredictable. The ‘60s flavored ditty “Take Care of Your Skin” recalls the intoxicating tango of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s most revered collaborations, while “It Hurts” – a stunning ballad featuring background vocals from Michael D’Addario (The Lemon Twigs) – sounds like an alt-country take on Mazzy Star.
Cohen’s simple but enchanting vocal delivery works so well with the band’s experimentation, each song comes out sounding like a cartoonish stroke of genius. “My Size” somehow combines a cute sing-along with a Halloween waltz to spit out an endearing song about marriage and “Too Cold To Cry” rides a playful acoustic rhythm, only to finish in a punkish implosion of screams and horns. Conversely, the most direct and straightforward songs on Zagg also churn out irresistible feel-good moments, such as on “Chico Chico,” a clunky breakup song which turns into a breezy summer jam, and on “Yesterday’s Baby,” a bright and earnest ode to leaving bullshit in the past.
Zagg is goofy and rough around the edges, but all the more eccentric because of it. At its core, the music is pure joy and its off-the-wall nature allows its charm to blossom into something truly unique. Even more impressive is Cohen’s gift for writing effortlessly catchy tunes. On top of her steadily increasing stack of earworm choruses, her ability to reflect on different realities – experienced, observed and imagined – signal many more compelling works are yet to come.