Once upon a time, there were these two dudes who just really liked drinking and making songs and shit. Then, one day, they decided to make music together. The result? The Fresh and Onlys. This San Francisco group (the city seems to be spawning rock-and-roll bands these days) is a conglomeration of guys in their thirties who know the music business inside and out (one of the founders, Shayde Sartin, still works for Amoeba records, while all the other members have all been in various bands over the years). Yet, in spite of the experienced group that makes up the band, their music still has an invitingly young quality to it. This is probably due to the fact that, although this is their third album, Fresh and Onlys have only been together for about three years.
On their newest album, Play It Strange, the prolific ensemble has found a solid sound, in the vein of the successful Surfer Blood, but with deeper vocals and a more nuanced melody, a la Edward Sharpe (though without the folksy-ness). In interviews, Fresh and Onlys have meekly disputed the ‘garage’ band label so often atributed to them, but thanks to the basement production of their first two albums, and the continued creation of slightly crunchy, homegrown tracks, it is a label they will find hard to avoid. On Play it Strange, the first three songs are an amazingly smooth beginning to an album– “Summer of Love” is an ironic ode to ignorant bliss, made up of a bouncy beat with a bit of zydeko accompaniment, while “Waterfall” stands out as my personal favorite song on the record. That track perfectly juxtaposes the deep strength of Cohen’s voice against Sartin’s equally deep bass line and a more optimistic, higher-pitched guitar melody. About halfway through Play it Strange, the group shakes it up, throwing in a nearly eight-minute tune, “Tropical Island Suite,” which starts off strong, but confusingly peters out at its mid-point. “All Shook Up,” meanwhile, has an old-fashioned quality to it, emphasizing harsh chords and low vocals. The final track harkens back to the album’s start, returning to a slower rhythm, but maintaining the same attitude of innocuousness which was present throughout Play it Strange.
The album is a definitely the work of a group that seems ready to embrace whatever sound comes their way – the band often talks about songs being produced organically, coming together into records, EPs, or cassettes when appropriate. The bottom line is that Fresh and Onlys make music the old-fashioned way, with basements and beer (they go through about a six-pack each while on stage) making up the heart of their creative impulse. Yet, it is Play It Strange’s originality and inventive twists, and not that approach to music making, that make the record worth many a re-listen.