Some bands begin with their masterpiece and take a few albums to fizzle out and finally call it quits. Other bands take a few albums to mature, to find their unique sound. Back in the beginning of rock, this was the model of success; bands would cut their teeth on covers before even risking their own compositions. The model changed as rock evolved, and debut albums meant more. Nowadays, when everything seems done to death, people don’t make cover albums; they just sound like they’re a cover band. Up till now, the Fresh & Onlys have played a familiar brand of garage rock and they were good at it. But with Play It Strange, we get a peek of what they may become.
Play It Strange is the Fresh & Onlys’ third album, but their first for In the Red Records, who foster some of the most interesting garage bands. However, they’ve broken away from the typical mold with this change-up. Tim Green, from the Fucking Champs and Comets on Fire produced and mixed the album, and whether or not his production was an influence, this record finds the Fresh & Onlys moving away from lightweight good-natured garage and into a more mature, developed sound. The analog to this album in, say, the Rolling Stones’ body of work, is Out of Our Heads—it’s basically an album that is still mostly covers, but gives a peak at masterly original material. Even though Play It Strange is all original, the first half of this album shows much promise, but the rest has been done before. If the Fresh & Onlys can capitalize on this sound and purge themselves of the played-out garage clichés, they may become a great band that transcends its genre, rather than merely a great garage band.
A major contribution to the success of this album is the production. The mix of Timothy Cohen’s melancholy laid-back vocals with Wymond Miles’ joyful surf-laden guitar leads gives the band a simultaneous excitement and maturity. Each song is built around their interplay. Cohen sings with that aura of tired sage that characterizes Paul Westerberg’s or even Michael Stipe’s voice. The guitar jangles are not only an obvious ‘60s throwback, like on the name-your-influences opener, “Summer of Love”, but also a reference to the ‘80s power pop revival.
The Fresh & Onlys have tweaked their mid-‘60s garage aesthetic towards the late-‘60s California pop that started to embrace country and western influences. The development in their derivation carries over as a maturity in their sound. The album highlight is the second track, “Waterfall”, where all of these pieces come together in near perfection. The verse line repeats and descends in a capitulating world weariness, only to recover while soaring back in the chorus. The exuberant guitar line punctuates each chorus, rounding off the overall mixed feelings of hopeful melancholy. But on some songs, the revival overtakes the originality. The lowest point of the album is “I’m All Shook Up”, which sticks to predictable melodies and oldies references.
It’s easy to separate the great songs from the lesser songs on this album. The Fresh & Onlys reach their peaks on the songs that sound like continuous compositions, songs that float on a wave of reverb without stopping. All of the other songs have the same trend of using rhythm shifts from verse to chorus to try to mix things up. The halting makes the band sound unsure of itself, like it doesn’t quite rely on its songwriting abilities. Case in point is “Tropical Island Suite”, which starts off like a pop punk anthem complete with a treble-heavy guitar line, but jerks back on the chorus of “Who are we?” in a typical rockabilly drum roll. On songs like this, the vocals and guitar don’t blend together successfully. The production falls apart, and the two leads seem to vie for the prominent place in the track. The song is called “suite” because the song continues after an apparent ending and the real end is more successful: a ponderous piano-driven exploration of the chorus line.
The problem with garage-revival is that it’s a very limited genre. The Fresh & Onlys are on their way to overcoming this limit. When they find a good continuous form, they’re great; when they throw in rhythmic tricks and filler song parts, it gets a little boring—but not quite bad. Hopefully, this album really is a sign of what’s to come. Instead of playing songs that sound exactly like songs you’ve heard, the Fresh & Onlys will stay in the more successful pop zone of songs that sound somewhat familiar.