A lot people don't get The Fresh & Onlys. Formed in 2008 by singer Tim Cohen and bassist Shayde Sartin, the ever-prolific San Francisco indie rockers have released six full-length LPs and more than a dozen 7-inches and EPs of darkly sweet psychedelic pop. Listen closely to any of the earlier releases from that canon — recorded during the band's pre-proper-studio days — and you might most immediately identify lo-fi pop influences like Sebadoh or The Clean.
"There's a misnomer about our band that's followed us around from the beginning, which is that we're a lo-fi band," Cohen tells the Scene. "A lot of that is symptomatic of the fact that we recorded everything up to [2010's] Play It Strange [in home studios]. ... I actually love Steely Dan, and I love Yes — I love bands that don't seem to make mistakes."
The "lo-fi" tag isn't the only one to hang around the band's neck like an aesthetic albatross. Emerging as oddball misfits in San Francisco's robust garage-rock scene — with their close ties to Bay Area flag-bearers like Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees — the Onlys are guilty by association. Many a lazy rock critic could listen to the infectiously twisted Play It Strange on repeat, turning blue in the face before realizing that what they're hearing — smart, nuanced psych-pop — is not garage rock.
"I find my songs for the most part to be simple, but not dumb," Cohen says. He explains that the drunken, fun-loving ethos of most garage-rock bands isn't a mentality he relates to. "It's really entertaining. I can't really listen to that stuff on a record."
The singer hopes that critics will hear the band's latest, Long Slow Dance, for what it is: a sometimes-sunny, sometimes-stormy, '60s- (and at times '80s-) inspired California folk-pop pastiche of The Mamas and the Papas, Moby Grape and Love meeting the jangly New Wave psychedelia of The Chameleons and The Stone Roses. Also, it's the band's biggest, most polished sounding effort to date.
"With this record I feel like we've made the record we've always wanted to make and once and for all removed that 'garage-rock' or 'lo-fi' or whatever tag, because it's something that we didn't ever deserve," Cohen says.
"20 Days and 20 Nights" opens Long Slow Dance like a lost, dreamy outtake from R.E.M.'s Murmur as sung by Daniel Johnston, had Johnston's voice ever dropped into a laid-back basso-profundo. Cohen's deep croon is as much a part of the band's shadowy sound as Sartin's bouncy, melodic bass lines or champion guitarist Wymond Miles' endless arsenal of bite-size call-and-response leads. So it's quite a shock when Cohen steps it up a couple octaves to capture the passion of idealized love on the album's wistful, lulling title track. It's not all love-filled pastures and sunshine, however. Much of Dance seethes with urgent, rocked-out angst that would make a young Robert Smith proud. "Yes or No" is a quick, driving rocker with riffs worthy of War-era U2, and the stunning "Fire Alarm" — with its roller-rink riffs, lush synths and New Wave stylings paired with dark lyrical imagery — takes the '80s flashback weekend to a whole new level.
"That one surprised me, too," Cohen says of "Fire Alarm." "It was just kind of in the spirit of having fun in the studio and seeing [how] we could treat these songs differently to make them unique from each other.
"That's my secret as a lyricist," he continues. "Juxtaposing moods, juxtaposing the highest of highs with lowest of lows and musically making it indiscernible. To me, as a listener, I've always been intrigued by that. The Smiths were able to do that really well, Ice Cube is another good example with 'Today Was a Good Day.' ... Ice Cube is, to me, the greatest lyricist ever in hip-hop."
Cohen takes as many vocal cues from his favorite gangsta rappers as he does from any forbearing psych-rock troubadour. "It stimulates [my creative process], because I've listened to it my whole life," he explains. "Usually lyrical ideas more than anything, which is how I usually start every song. ... I'm able to draw from the highs and lows equally and put them to this plaintive, deadpan singing voice that I have."
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