Between 2008 and 2011, San Francisco garage rockers The Fresh & Onlys released three full-length LPs and a slew of EPs, singles, and splits. After building their back catalog up with unmatched ferocity, the band slowed down their release schedule following the release of 2010′s Play It Strange, going some 22 months between LPs. When it came time to record LP #4, the group continued to make use of their well-afforded time, spending more hours in-studio than ever before and practicing newfound restraint and patience. The resulting effort, Long Slow Dance, is a perfect example of time’s true, unpredictable power, a collection of 12 songs that demonstrate true focus and dedication while displaying telltale signs of over-analysis and stagnation.
Despite its upsides, Play It Strange was something of a victim as well. The band’s “keep everything” mentality mired what could have been really riveting garage rock. As a remedy to that, the four-piece focuses their songwriting/crafting on an intriguing mixture of ’60s pop and country-western, exemplified by the title track. With its chugging guitar and love-gone-mad lyrics (“True love/ Will drag you to the yard/ And set fire to your home/ It’s one long slow dance”), it’s essential pop romance encased in dusty globs of acoustic rock, heavy on the outlaw vibe and sense of forlorn (though Tim Cohen’s charm is more Buddy Holly than Waylon Jennings).
It’s that general lack of darkness despite the vast potential that makes “Executioner’s Song” stand out. There’s an unmistakable air of sensuality and passion to the story of a waif singing her song as men are brought to their death. Like the title track, it’s pop masquerading as country, with a twirling psychedelic guitar adding mass appeal and brevity to the heavy Western storyline. The presence of Mexican-inspired horns adds another layer, one that expands their sound without overwhelming the scene.
Even without the more pronounced country influence, the synth-rock of”Fire Alarm” and the ultra-drone of “Euphoria” demonstrate the band further maximizing their efforts. The common thread, aside from danceability, lies in the fact that these songs epitomize the band’s more carefree spirit, the musicians fully embracing the concept of filler, able to make worthwhile distractions that help enhance the impact of the album’s more crucial and valuable tracks.
Of course, there’s filler and then there’s something far more sinister. “Presence of Mind” and “Yes or No” are two of the album’s most musically important numbers. The former’s a romantic jam of liquid xylophones and fluttery harmonies, while the latter is a blazing synthesis of simple acoustic rock taken to the Nth degree by the rollicking guitar. Yet the lyrics, bland and repetitive in “Presence” and unbearably awful in “Yes” (“When we lived in the water/ You said you wanted fire/ And so I gave you fire/ You kicked it in the water”), point to cracks in the band’s facade. Perhaps their rapid-fire musical lifestyle acts as a tool to keep out the boredom, keeping things from falling into a sinkhole of derivativeness.
The worst offense, though, is letting the uninspired “Foolish Person” run well over six minutes, the track a painful blast of guitar junk noise that pointlessly builds to nothing. It’s the musical equivalent of engaging in a conversation and continuing to make your point long after you’ve won; just a couple minutes of that gloomy dissonance would’ve been enough to intrigue or frighten listeners. Instead, they present a song that falls flat because of how much they attempted to push into it, damaging the layers of feedback with each preceding moment and another corresponding layer.
Meanwhile, “Wanna Do Right By You”, a shimmery hybrid of doo-wop and gentle country, is stifled to a mere 90 seconds. And why might such a beautiful sonic butterfly be snuffed out in its prime? Over-analysis, the bastard cousin of stagnation. Rather than trying to make something out of almost nothing, the band seemingly approached a fresh sound with hesitation, deciding the sly blend of smooth harmonies and Western grit was to be limited in case of failure. Taking your time with albums means having confidence in your end product, something woefully absent in this track.
Sure, it’s presumptive to assume that they made a mistake in song lengths, or that swapping them would have made a difference, but highlighting this difference leads to an important lesson: musical growth is awkward. The Fresh & Onlys are a significant and highly-skilled band, but one still with a lot of growing to do despite their deep discography. With Long Slow Dance, they’ve accepted this fact and are putting in the work to expand, experiment, and never be entirely the same. With a few more ticks of the clock (and hopefully fewer small releases), they’ll be well on their way to true timelessness.
Essential Tracks: “Executioner’s Song”, “Long Slow Dance”