On 2015’s Before You Knew Me (Seagreen Records), Rhinebeck native and New York City resident Sam Kogon goes all-in on a kind of psychedelic, carefully arranged, retro guitar pop that hasn’t ruled the charts since the days of the Beatles, but that never goes far out of fashion either. It’s “unpopular pop music,” a phrase once coined to describe those perennial chart underperformers XTC. While Kogon’s songs tend to be less overtly referential than many of his psych/pop trickster peers (with one exception noted below), his fancies and his influences aren’t difficult to guess.
At roots level, it’s Beatles, Zombies, Beach Boys, Hollies, Love, Emitt Rhodes, Big Star and the overstuffed vaults of ’60s/’70s production pop. It rocks old-school and without a trace of bluesy riffage. To help curb the lysergic excesses endemic to the genre, Kogon invokes the punk pith and serrated edges of New Wave: early Costello, Joe Jackson and XTC, whose trippy, stylized alter ego, the Dukes of Stratosphear, might also have played a part in the formation of Kogon’s Muse. Even more discernible is the contemporary influence of the Shins and Of Montreal: one for the unfailing melodic acumen, the other for the experimental spirit and the unfiltered autobiographical impulse.
Kogon’s agreeable, understated crooning shares mix space with his generously stacked harmonies, relished plate reverbs, cheesy and wheezy keyboards and all the literal bells and whistles of the indie-pop toy chest. Fussy and decorative it is not, however – or at least not much. Kogon loves his Baroque pop doilies, but they seldom enfeeble the rock urgencies at the core of this record. Angular meter changes, sprightly tempos, warped guitars and the charming naïveté of garage psychedelia abound on such standouts as the punky “Plans,” the arabesque “Potential” and “Odd,” the hook of which is borrowed more or less whole cloth from “You Showed Me,” the hit single that Gene Clark penned for the Turtles.
Much to delight of oldsters like me who have been waiting for another guitar-pop renaissance, this kind of imaginative chamber rock is everywhere these days except on the pop charts – or at least it is in New York City. Not all the acolytes own a share of that Brian Wilson gene, however: the ear for harmonic color and surprise, the sense of the shapely line and the fine art of transparent layering. Kogon’s got it, and Before You Knew Me is a delight. Kogon is already waist-deep into recording his follow-up, which will be released in the late spring on the Brooklyn label Beyond Beyond is Beyond.
Sam Kogon and his band perform at BSP in Kingston as part of the Free Thursdays series on January 14 at 8 p.m. Also on the bill is Utica’s pop/punk outfit Comfy. BSP is located at 323 Wall Street in Kingston. For more information, visit https://www.bspkingston.com. To hear and buy Sam Kogon’s Before You Knew Me, visit https://samkogon.bandcamp.com.
Sam Kogon with Comfy, Thursday, January 14, 8 p.m., free, BSP, 323 Wall Street, Kingston; https://www.bspkingston.com.