October 11, 2010

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Douglas Martin is the Ken Griffey Jr. of indie-rock writers.

Sometime last year, I read a live review that unfavorably compared The Fresh & Onlys to Wavves. I like Wavves and all (despite releasing one of the most overrated punk records of 2010), but I scoffed upon reading the comparison. Apart from sharing a governor who starred in the timeless masterpiece Kindergarten Cop, the two bands’ primary songwriters hail from different planets.

Nathan Williams is a diminutive slacker who projects the air of a shithead skate-punk. His slapdash songs use no more than three chords and circle themes of self-loathing, alienation, and not having anything to do (“So Bored”) or any possession of reasonable value (“No Hope Kids”). Besides the romantic themes in his songs, nearly everything about Fresh & Onlys ringleader Tim Cohen is unvarnished, from his appearance (rocking vintage Seattle Mariners baseball caps) down to his work ethic.

While Williams releases a steady flow of records (one LP every year could be considered prolific until you realize how easy Wavves songs are to construct), Cohen-penned songs are like the unlimited breadsticks at Olive Garden: you get a new one every time you finish your basket, and it’s really tough to get enough of them. He and his band dropped two LP’s last year and the career highlight August in My Mind EP this year, and Cohen still had time to release a solo record. Given how well-written his songs are, it’s astonishing how quickly they are recorded and released. Cohen has written as many songs as Allen Iverson took shots during his first tenure with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Play it Strange opens with the appropriately-titled “Summer of Love,” a bright, jangly tune reminiscent of the idyllic scene of Cohen’s native San Francisco, directly referencing the Haight-Ashbury scene of the late-60’s and taking cues from the Paisley Underground scene of the mid-80’s. The ghosts of San Francisco’s past hovered over the sounds of The Mantles, while Jerry Garcia seemed to have sit in on the sessions for Woods’ stellar At Echo Lake. But Cohen isn’t the type of songwriter that rests on one style, and Play it Strange is indicative of his songwriting breadth.

The most noticeable difference between Play it Strange and its extraordinary predecessors– their self-titled record and Grey-Eyed Girls, both released last year– is the increase in fidelity. Cohen has never particularly needed the crutch of lo-fidelity to obscure his songs in the first place, and though the sound quality is far better than when the band would record straight to a Tascam twelve-track, the songwriting quality remains as high as it ever was.

“Red Light Green Light” and “All Shook Up” carry all the shimmy of 50’s rock ‘n roll, the latter reminiscent of Roy Orbison’s best work and highlighting Cohen’s wide-eyed mawkishness with the lyrics, “All I want to do is to just be in love with you.” Cohen also wears his heart on his sleeve over the dimly-lit surf-rock of early album highlight “Until the End of Time,” pledging the song title as the length of time his heart will belong to his lover. “Waterfall” is similarly overcast, with Shayde Sartin’s bass and Wymond Miles’ guitar lines weaving through each other while wordless harmonies echo in the distance. The fantastically-titled “Be My Hooker” showcases Miles’ nimble skills on lead guitar, while Startin steps out into the foreground on “Who Needs a Man” with an oscillating, hypnotic bassline.

Heart-tugging synths open the tender balladry of closer “I’m a Thief,” which showcases Cohen at his lyrical best. The song posits him as the proverbial possessive boyfriend, pleading with his lover to not give her heart away, but on the same token, sings, “I’m a thief, and I’ll take everything that I need.” He claims her heart and asks her not to give it to jealous lovers, only breaths later telling her not to give it to anyone, putting himself in the former category without saying it directly. The fascinating contradiction coupled with the emotional crescendo of the coda gives the album a suitable climax, not only of the record, but of the discography of The Fresh & Onlys, who, with Play it Strange, stand a chance to make it to the upper echelon of underground rock, a long-deserved distinction for the band.

Download:
MP3: The Fresh & Onlys-“Waterfall”