[11 June 2014]
San Francisco has always had a fairly fertile underground music scene. Recent years have seen a boom in critically adored bands creating records that often feel as though they could have been crafted at nearly any time within the last 45 years or so, employing a very specific aesthetic that creates a musical through-line from the early psychedelic groups through contemporary acts trading in similar sonic terrain. The rather incestuous nature of the scene further aids in establishing a shared musical narrative that spans numerous bands, groups, projects and solo endeavors, creating what seems to be a fairly close-knit collective of like-minded musicians tapping into their collective musical heritage while simultaneously writing an entirely new chapter in their city’s storied musical history.
Never quite as frantic as their neighbors to the south in Los Angeles, the San Francisco bands always seemed to possess a more laidback, exploratory approach to the creation of music, allowing it to come about organically rather than at the behest of the major labels looming large on the city’s skyline. Instead, with the freedom distance affords, these bands were able to bring about a fertile scene in which creativity trumped commerce and, in the process, established a template still employed today by the city’s myriad musicians.
Eschewing the city’s rolling hills and sparkling bay in favor of the isolation afforded by a remote Arizona horse ranch, principle songwriter Tim Cohen struck out with just a guitar, keyboard and drum machine to create the songs that ultimately make up the Fresh & Onlys’ latest release, House of Spirits. The album’s opening line “home is where your feet are” (“Home Is Where?”) functions as a statement of purpose and personal credo, tapping into the nomadic tradition of like-minded musicians who, while always rooted in their city by the bay, are not afraid to explore the outer limits of not just their sonic palette, but also their physical surroundings in search of inspiration; spirits in search of some greater meaning and purpose in this life and whatever might come next.
And House of Spirits is just that: an exploratory album on which the Fresh & Onlys assess their current status and look to expand beyond what they’ve done in the past. Building upon their previous successes, House of Spirits seeks to expand their sonic palette, exploring both the expected uptempo numbers while also allowing their sound to spread out more, filling in the empty spaces to become more fully realized and fleshed out. “Bells of Paonia” in particular features a veritable wall of distortion under which a steady, rumbling eighth-note sub-bass figure pulsates while Cohen delivers a plaintive, heartbreaking vocal melody featuring impressionistic lyrics recalling fleeting glimpses of a lost love.
“Animal of One”, exploring similar lyrical territory, takes on a jangle-y, Shins-esque tone replete with heavily reverbed vocals, a soaring recitation of the track’s title, spaghetti-western guitar work, steady, insistent drumming, and an appropriately aggressive solo and stands along with “Bells of Paonia” as a high-point on the album.
While they’re still able to rock out when necessary (see the rollicking, appropriately titled “Hummingbird” for proof they haven’t gone soft), House of Spirits relies a bit too heavily on more languid numbers and a more traditional California sound that tends to cause the album to drag in places and, at nearly 40 minutes and 10 tracks, that’s not generally a good thing. Fortunately, there is no shortage of interesting moments and ideas being presented throughout and even the most lethargic tracks still have their moments of near-brilliance. Album closer “Madness” borders on territory sufficiently explored by the National and, with its reliance on keyboards and drum machines, points to a potential sonic future more rooted in the now with an improvisatory guitar freakout acting as a potential send-off to past ideas.
More than anything else,
is the product of self-imposed isolation and functions as an evaluation of the self and, in the process, requires the listener to immerse themselves fully in the sounds and imagery being presented, accepting them on their own terms and embracing the emotional catharsis that ensues. As with any exercise in self-evaluation, Cohen’s lyrics focus on the self with self-referential pronouns being utilized in nearly every track, each delivered in a tone that indicates Cohen is singing directly to very specific parties, addressing transgressions and seeking to provide an explanation after some fairly heavy soul-searching.
Overall, the Fresh & Onlys have retained the standard of excellence established over the past half decade or so across a myriad releases for a number of well-regarded indie labels and crafted a solid release worthy of more in-depth consideration and late-night spins after everyone else has gone home and you’re left alone contemplating your own house of spirits.