The Fresh & Onlys

Embracing the Awkward:
The Fresh & Onlys’ Forever Romance

San Francisco’s Fresh & Onlys haven’t changed much in the past five years. It’s true that their latest LP, Long Slow Dance, offers a new, cleaner aesthetic in comparison to the distortion-heavy sound of their first three albums. Frontman Tim Cohen and bassist Shayde Sartin insist their style has always leaned toward the saccharine.

“I think romance and music go hand in hand,” says Cohen, “whether it’s something you’re fully involved in or something that you’ve lost or something that you want. It’s a driving force in the human spirit and…it’s the nature of being alone versus not being alone. Whether or not you are [alone], hopefully, if you have a soul, you just feel these things.”

From the start, the heavy distortion that muddles the Fresh & Onlys’ first three full-lengths corralled them into the same loosely-fenced garage-rock pen as Bay Area buddies like Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall. Despite all the variance in their many side projects, like Cohen’s Magic Trick and guitarist Wymond Miles’ airy solo work, they’ve still been narrowed by the same tag. And while they never really struggled to escape it, it doesn’t mean they ever actually belonged there.

“One of the good things about us is that we’ll always thrive in any environment that we’re put in,” says Sartin of the pigeonhole. “Creatively speaking, that’s like show-wise. We can do any type of show.”

On Long Slow Dance, the Fresh & Onlys have dropped the cloak of fuzz altogether. Now it’s easy to hear what has been there all along: love songs. The sad kind, the all-wrapped-up-in-it variety, even the type that’s not about people at all but instead something intangible. Freeing themselves of the confines of the press and less thoughtful listeners wasn’t the aim, though.

“We made this record with a lot of intentions behind it and a lot of, like, let’s make the sound good and make everyone be able to listen to this record in any room in any country in the world,” Cohen explains.

It’s the higher fidelity of Long Slow Dance that will inadvertently unlock the gate for the Fresh & Onlys. Cohen’s voice is mostly unaltered and in its sweetest tone, and the band’s playing, which now includes marimba, is incredibly clear. In general, the sound twinkles lightly more often than it tears bluntly. While their signature Western touches are still a pervasive motif, on this go ‘round, pleasantry precedes them.

Now lines like “You supply the innocent mind/ And I’ll bring the guilty heart/ And born together we’ll make the perfect romance” from Long Slow Dance’s title track, sound so much lovelier than ones that are actually more romantic: “I will be in love with you until the end of time/ And you know my word is true because I wouldn’t lie” (“Until the End of Time,” Play It Strange). Lyrically, the latter is sweeter, but its wobbly Western accents and generally faster pace obscure the emotion.

To make a more accessible record, Cohen says he “tapped into a sentimental love song vibe,” something he was prepared to do because he’s virtually accepted what he calls his “cheesy tendencies.”

“Because I’m not embarrassed by that side of myself, I kind of let that fly on the lyrics,” Cohen explains. “There are a lot of clichés born into the lyrics. At the same time, I think they’re all really pure and heartfelt. They did come from a real place. I think that there’s a reason that things are cheesy and [the reason stereotypes] even exist – because they’re true, as shitty as that sounds.”

The opener, “20 Days and 20 Nights,” includes more than one: “Thinking of the better times/ Something so heavy/ In my mind/ I think I wanna try and let it out/ So I cry/ And I cry.” But there’s a tinge of timidity, a subtle shakiness in Cohen’s voice that delicately tilts the tune toward off-kilter. And the emotional bluntness adds an idiosyncratic brand of awkwardness to it all.

“One thing that I’ve always found charming about Tim’s personality…is that he’s really not afraid to be the sentimental fool. And that’s pretty liberating, if you think about it,” notes Sartin. “He’s not afraid to sort of embrace the saccharine, cheesy side, as he puts it, and use that as a creative source. Because it’s really fun. It feels really good. It’s also really awkward.”

On “Presence of Mind,” which features a gurgling, sideways climbing riff steadied by an almost tropical marimba, he sings, “Here lies a man/ With stars in his eyes/ What does he care/ If the future is bright?/ The future is bright/ After tonight.” While the lyrics owe something to the term starry-eyed, Cohen employs it uniquely – darkly, even.

“It’s kind of both sides, but it’s more so about losing love,” Cohen notes, “or that other side of love that you don’t always see on the Valentine’s cards, you know? The more astute listeners will get that, the ones who know our music and can kind of figure out what we’re going for. For the general public, I thought it was time to make a record that anyone or their mom or dad could listen to.”

Cohen and Sartin both express wanting to reach a wider audience, not only through the sound but also how it’s presented. After hopping around label to label – like many independent bands do – from Castle Face to Woodsist to In the Red to Captured Tracks, they seem settled with Mexican Summer. For now, it’s a two-record deal that’s kicked off with Long Slow Dance.

“Having toured so much on these releases on these smaller-run labels, it became very clear that we weren’t really taking that next step and more people weren’t going to come to our shows if we just kept touring,” Cohen says. “There was something missing.”

They deduced that an “infrastructure,” as Sartin calls it, would benefit the band’s growth. While the label is only as old as the Fresh & Onlys, its parent label is Kemado, which debuted in 2002. The Fresh & Onlys, particularly with Long Slow Dance, do seem more appropriately at home on Mexican Summer. Cohen mentioned a longstanding good rapport with head honcho Keith Abrahamsson, as well as being fond of the roster, which has hosted the likes of Kurt Vile, Wooden Shjips, The Soft Pack and Ariel Pink.

“[Mexican Summer doesn’t] have any sort of creative influence necessarily in what we do,” Sartin adds. “They’re not sitting there trying to tell us what kind of record to make or that kind of shit. We’ve never had that happen – it wouldn’t happen to us, because we’d blast them out of the fucking room.”

Sartin isn’t kidding. Maybe he’s exaggerating about the backlash, but he’s right: the Fresh & Onlys have always been tapping the sentimental.

“If you listen to the first album, the first line on the first album is ‘feelings in my heart.’ You couldn’t get any cheesier that ‘feelings in my heart.’” Sartin laughs. “We’ve always had this sort of effervescent romanticism about it.”

On the same album, there’s “Peacock and Wing,” the cutesy, standout tune that proclaims, “You should really be my fresh and only/ You’d have a smile on your face that I could always see only/ Lay with me in my bed of roses.” On Grey-Eyed Girls, the follow-up, Cohen sings, “Don’t ever question your place in my heart” on “No Second Guessing,” a slower, more sullen number that, like everything up until Long Slow Dance, is drenched with distortion. The method used to deliver that effervescence is what’s changed, not the feeling itself.

The band hinted at their next step on Play It Strange, their third album. It’s still scuzzy sounding, but opening with “Summer of Love” and closing with the ballad-paced lovelorn plea of “I’m a Thief” quietly indicates a move toward a more sentimental place.

Maybe all of that fuzz served as a bit of a disguise, a way for Cohen and company to become at ease with all the emotion that’s now at the frontlines. “Foolish Person” might be the best example of that bravery. Saved for the second-to-last spot on Long Slow Dance, a falsetto opens the song: “I don’t want to be a fool anymore.” And while the tempo isn’t turtle-slow, it’s one of the most brazenly emotional songs on the album.

“We don’t own pop songs, we simply reinterpret the many billions that we’ve heard in our lifetimes growing up,” Sartin says. “The only thing in pop music that belongs to us [is] that awkwardness and that strangeness that we bring to it. And I think it’s kind of important to let that stuff breathe, and sort of have a fertile ground for that shit to grow.”

Photo by David Black.