Douglas Martin’s favorite slow dance is the Southern minuet. You better ask somebody.
Though perhaps not long and slow, the career of the Fresh & Onlys up to this point has certainly been a dance. It started off in whirlwind fashion, not even half a decade ago, with the rapid-fire release of both their self-titled debut and sophomore effort Grey-Eyed Girls— a tango of trebly distortion and classicist vibes, splitting the difference between 13th Floor Elevators and the Grateful Dead. While 2010’s excellent August in My Mind EP found the San Francisco band grabbing the waist of their sound, so to speak.
Later that year, they hopped into an real-life recording studio and cleaned up their act in more ways than one, releasing Play it Strange to greater mainstream acclaim than they’d received prior. Part of that can be attributed to their newfound lushness, trading the clang-and-jangle of “Grey-Eyed Girl” or the mangled, hyperactive surf-punk of “Peacock and Wing” for the radio-friendly Morricone-esque “Waterfall” and honest-to-goodness ballad “I’m a Thief.” In hindsight, Play it Strange was kind of an ironic title, as it was by leaps and bounds the most straightforward full-length of the Fresh & Onlys’ short-but-buoyant career.
The title of their latest full-length is not so ironic.
In places, Long Slow Dance is just that. Tim Cohen’s songwriting here mirrors the diaphanous balladry of the albums recorded solo and with Magic Trick, with Cohen mostly using his smooth lower register and his affinity for major chords. The album’s title track and “No Regard” sound like they were pinched from the seemingly vast reserve of mid-tempo strummy love songs. That’s not exactly a bad thing. Though the latter has the oft-used pop songwriting parlor trick of repeating, “You’re never gonna break my heart” as the narrator’s way of convincing himself of it rather than someone else, it’s one of the better pop songwriting parlor tricks. It’s certainly better than crutch-rhyming “crazy” with “baby.”
But Long Slow Dance seems to take on its name when some of the strummy love songs seem to bleed into one another, utilizing neither the pacing of Grey-Eyed Girls nor the songwriting breadth of The Fresh & Onlys. Like always, the album peppers louder, high-energy moments in between the slower tunes, but the glossier production makes them less visceral than older Fresh & Onlys barn-burners, devoid of the ear-ringing guitars and kick-you-in-the-face drums; they mostly just sound like radio-rock numbers. The admittedly savvy promotional email for the album uses its initials to make a clever acronym, but unfortunately, Long Slow Dance isn’t nearly as mind-bendingly weird as, say, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” Mostly, it just feels like a trip that lasts all night and nothing much happens.
That’s not to say that the album’s straight-laced moments are all boring. Lead single “Yes or No” highlights Cohen’s ability as a deceptively above-par lyricist, able to sidestep cryptic, poetic turns of phrase while still being interesting. “Dream Girls” does the same while utilizing the same sort of hazy, off-center country music that mid-period R.E.M. did so well. “Executioner’s Song” adds flavor to its southwestern style by adding a dramatic round of trumpets. For the most part, the extra time spent recording the album– Cohen and co-captain Shayde Sartin have said this album took them a few months longer than it usually takes to flesh out a Fresh & Onlys full-length– was spent fine-tuning and adjusting rather than taking a more exploratory approach. Which is neither unwelcome nor unexpected; they’ve always been the least-weird of the widely celebrated San Francisco garage scene.
Thankfully, the album’s final moments are where the band shows they can still be adventurous. “Foolish Person,” Long Slow Dance‘s exciting penultimate track, finds Cohen inching up toward a falsetto and straining his vocal chords during the first verses, only to lead to a heavy end coda louder than any other moment on the album. Following the climax comes the floating, sweet end. “Wanna Do Right By You” sounds like a pensive 60’s ballad cut in half and thrown into a Tunnel of Love boat, carrying both the heartwarming feel of sock hop ballads and the light unsettling trace of a David Lynch-selected soundtrack favorite. You can almost imagine Dennis Hopper in the background, taking a lead pipe to somebody’s head.
Of course, that’s where the Fresh & Onlys succeed, coupling mawkish, heart-on-sleeve sensitivity with abject darkness, sometimes without even knowingly referencing the latter. Though the band has mostly settled upon love songs at this point in their career, they realize that love is not always a fresh bouquet of flowers and suit jackets and dinner reservations. Like all good things, there’s a dark side of love, there’s the part where there’s a struggle or a loss, and it’s always looming in the background. It’s usually looming in the background of a Fresh & Onlys song, even if they don’t acknowledge it’s there.