December 29, 2009

Feature: The Fresh & Onlys

Side project enthusiasts are never at a loss for ideas

By Chelsea Werner-Jatzke; photos by Brian Pritchard

There’s something about red velvet curtains being pulled aside that lends an air of spectacle to anything behind them. While I’ve rarely seen a small venue lend that grandeur to the start of a band’s performance, it wasn’t the curtain opening at Portland’s Someday Lounge that made the Fresh & Onlys feel special. It was the way Shayde Sartin’s bass subtly led the songs along, the way Tim Cohen crooned over his keys, and the way he would nod at guitarist Wymond Miles to give him props for some spontaneous soloing.

At one point during their set a sweaty boy bumped into me and asked, “Do you like this?” I suppose he was wondering why I was standing up front, but not part of the undulating bop of bodies around me. I was too busy at the time, as I have been since then, trying to figure out just what it is that the Fresh & Onlys do that makes them stand out as a beacon of clever contemporary songwriting.

Upon a first listen to Grey-Eyed Girls, the Fresh & Onlys’ second full-length release of 2009, I immediately thought they were on K Records. They haven’t released anything on Calvin Johnson’s label, but the monotone vocal pacing and lyrical themes on a song like “What’s His Shadow Still Doing Here” reeks of Beat Happening’s “Cat Walk.” A closer listen conjures images of the Beach Boys contorted into a ‘50s Buddy Holly suit – if Buddy Holly had lived into the ‘60s and traded in his large spectacles for the metaphorical third eye of psychedelia.

After getting my hands on their first full-length album, I picked up on strains of the New York Dolls during a song like “Fog Machine.” No more than three tracks spanning disparate parts of the ‘70s later, “Peacock and Wing” bridges the album into the ‘80s. These guys are all over the decades, but what makes them identifiable is the way that no one song actually fits into the categories they are combining. When harmonica comes into the driving and prophetic “Nuclear Disaster,” or the drawn-out doom of clashing guitars ends the upbeat “The Delusion of Man,” the comparisons one would jump to make are no longer valid.

While interviewing Cohen and Miles about how they feel their band fits into the Bay Area scene they come from, they were reluctant to settle on a definition. This makes sense. Despite Cohen’s impressive beard and regardless of Wymond’s long hair, reminiscent of a brother Gibb, they are far from the “beard rock” of folky mountain bands or the disco-days of the Bee Gees. Their reticence towards labeling their sound in terms of their scene most probably derives from the fact that between each member’s side projects, they seem to have something to do with a lot of the great bands coming out of San Francisco.

Singer and songwriter Cohen is like the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt: popping out great side projects everywhere he goes. Starting under the moniker Feller Quentin, Cohen has been involved with bands of all genres, including not one, but two hip-hop groups. His last band, Black Fiction, was darker and experimental, showing more of Cohen’s vocal range. Overlapping band members and an unabated creative energy led to the Window Twins, a group that highlights a pared-down lo-fi sound, one of many dimensions the Fresh and Onlys are tapped into. Amocoma, Cohen’s black metal alias, isn’t a heavy influence on the warped-pop underbelly of the Fresh and Onlys, but his drumming for 3 Leafs, a band created by Damo Suzuki of CAN, definitely is. 3 Leafs also includes the talents of Fresh & Onlys bassist Shayde Sartin and backup vocalist Heidi Alexander.

Alexander and second backup vocalist Grace Cooper are also founding members of the Sandwitches, an achingly honest and haunting freak-folk group. And Sartin has played with San Francisco’s Papercuts and Sky Green Leopards. All these projects point the listener towards the influence of ‘60s flower rock in Fresh & Onlys tunes like “Summer of Love,” played live at the Scion Festival and slated for the next record.

This aspect of their sound could have something to do with the enigma/relic of ‘60s psychedelia, Rodriguez’s reason for having the band back him live on his recent tour dates. Despite all this activity, all members agree the Fresh & Onlys are their main concern. Even though Cohen recently released his first solo album under his own name, you can find the evidence of this commitment in the sheer volume of material the band has made available. In the year since forming out of some Tascam 388 eight-track recordings, they’ve released two albums, two EPs and two cassettes on their own No-Foot Boogie Tapes label. As Cohen puts it, the Fresh & Onlys’ recording process is to record everything – even if beer spills on the eight-track, making it a four-track. “It’s a quantity over quality philosophy that I’ve embraced,” he says. “Whenever you have an idea, just record it. We all espouse the philosophy that if you have an idea, just get it down. Don’t be too precious or delicate with it.”

Perhaps it’s this philosophy that keeps their releases, despite their closeness in time, from stagnation. With so many different musical leanings and outlets, a song that gets put into the Fresh & Onlys’ catalog is defined by its amalgamous sound. “It’s unusual to have so many ideas indulged,” is the way Miles sees it. “It’s not just that we record all the time. It’s that there’s this support system both creatively and in how we record things. It’s kind of rare.”

Never a dull moment, the Fresh & Onlys aren’t slowing down any time soon. If Miles was right when he said you don’t want to see Cohen when he’s not writing a song, we can be prepared for their third album to be even more comprehensive than the last two. Cohen feels their upcoming release for early 2010 on In The Red is the closest the band has come to having the idea of making an album in mind while recording. Freely citing Country Joe and the Fish, the 13th Floor Elevators and others as influences worn proudly, it seems safe to say this band will deliver another album that lets the mind roam through genres and surprising combinations.

The Fresh & Onlys are distinctly current in a music world so full of throwbacks to experimental rock bands. Combining such a myriad of musical inspirations and creating something upbeat and introspective – something that isn’t just a mashup of songs listened to on shag carpeting in a basement – is a feat. Whether it’s a dog’s bark, a layer of organ or some heavy distortion, the Fresh & Onlys sound is like the form a ghost takes to approach a human – seemingly familiar and yet unexpected.

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