The Fresh & Onlys are perplexing. Although they are linked to the recently ascendant San Francisco garage rock scene, they are not really a garage band per se. Instead, they traffic in the sort of late ’80s jangle-rock best defined by Flying Nun Records’ roster, hewing particularly close to the literate sensibilities of bands such as the Verlaines, the Bats and the Chills. And that’s often an (ahem) fresh approach in the garage scene. Unfortunately, House Of Spirits, the Fresh & Onlys’ fifth album in nearly as many years, is sometimes too languid for its own good.
Admittedly, House Of Spirits is clearly moving into in an even more melodic mood for the band. The Fresh & Onlys bear a superficial resemblance to standard-setters like Echo and The Bunnymen but, filtered through their Laurel Canyon-leaning West Coast haze, the music here lacks the kind of drama and tension that marks the truly memorable. Where Tim Cohen’s vocals should soar, scream or sink low, they remain at a consistent monotone, rendering his occasionally poetic lyrics into lukewarm sentiments that do not invite further investigation. Cohen seems almost embarrassed to show any visceral emotion that may get the listener’s blood pumping.
Paradoxically, it’s the songs that intend to slow the pulse down that make the strongest impression. Bells Of Paonia ditches the guitars for a bass-heavy throb featuring elegiac vocals. If I’m Awake doesn’t drift you to dreamland, Hummingbird will quicken the pulse a bit. After a stretch of Paisley Underground-recalling, ostensibly rock songs, the closer Madness mines similar territory as Bells Of Paonia and is more successful than most of the tracks that precede it. In a different era, the Fresh & Onlys music would have been deemed “college rock.” But, all things considered, now such sounds are quite firmly set in the realm of “NPR rock,” tote bag not included.