Ora Cogan’s latest album, ‘Formless’, is difficult to categorize. There are elements of gothic country, hazy folk, psych rock and traditional balladry to it. The roots of ‘Formless’ were developed during pandemic isolation on long walks with her dog and is full of ruminations on awkward love, pain, internal struggles and the effort of trying to find ways to feel good. It is an album that benefits from a lyric sheet because the words and imagery are compelling but Cogan’s diction is not the clearest. ‘Formless’ needs to be listened to in its entirety as it develops an enveloping mood over its nine tracks.

The record gets off to a cracking start with ‘High Noon’, a piece of understated drama, full of slightly shrill strings and eery guitar, Cogan’s voice like a gothic Stevie Nicks suggesting being at the end of its tether with restrictions (“With your rules / And your prisms… You guard the dogs / That guard the gates to hell.”)

I went looking for the devil / In a golden suit on a Saturday night”, she sings at the beginning of ‘Holy Hell’, a psychedelic piece on which the guitar and vocals seem to be on different planes and time zones yet it blends into a gloriously disorienting mix with the song being another statement of independence (“You decide, dictate and police /  Whatever you do don’t pray for me.”)

‘Feel Life’ shows the range of Cogan’s voice as she wakes “with a record skipping in my head” and wants to feel life and love. With its choppy guitars, Liam Gibson’s keyboards giving it a dark tinge while a guest appearance from Cormac MacDiarmada of Lankum on strings adds an extra tonal quality.

In contrast, ‘Cowgirl’ has a gothic country vibe. There is a glorious feel to the guitars to counteract the darkness of the lyrics and the compelling fragility of her voice (“There was blood in the corner of your mouth…  All the dogs were howling.”) Continuing in this dark vibe, ‘Katie Cruel’ is a traditional song arranged by Cogan in a psych folk style, the guitars leading her voice in a splendid dance and keys adding to the atmosphere.

The mood shifts with ‘Ways of Losing’, a gently drifting ballad duetting with Y La Bamba while JP Carter’s trumpet adds to the atmosphere and the realisation that “I will learn to live without you”. ‘Dyed’ is notable for its exquisite guitar playing, Cogan’s voice takes an experimental folk turn as she goes one step further than Clint Eastwood (“I will sing into the trees / Til they take up all my pain”) and gently exhorts, “Well I’d sell my soul to the devil you know / Just to see you smile.”

Appropriately, the first couple of minutes of ‘Drifting’ are as light as the gentlest breeze in their configuration of guitar picking and hazy vocals although the lyrics are definitely not soothing (“Death came to our house”) before the music picks up momentum and the trumpet adds colour. The album ends with ‘Is Anything Wrong’, written by Lhasa de Sela, which has a campfire air to the minimal guitar playing and the yearning quality of Cogan’s voice.

It is unlikely that anything sounding quite like ‘Formless’ will be released this year. Even though it is muted and understated, it offers a stark and involving blend of styles that creates its own distinct mood.

Ora Cogan: Formless – Out 31st May 2024 (Prism Tongue)

Cogan – Ways of Losing feat. Y La Bamba (Official Video) (youtube.com)

I was editor of the long-running fanzine, Plane Truth, and have subsequently written for a number of publications. While the zine was known for championing the most angular independent sounds, performing in recent years with a community samba percussion band helped to broaden my tastes so that in 2021 I am far more likely to be celebrating an eclectic mix of sounds and enthusing about Made Kuti, Anthony Joseph, Little Simz and the Soul Jazz Cuban compilations as well as Pom Poko and Richard Dawson.