Sonic geography, or the tendency of bands in a certain geographic region to come to certain musical conclusions together, is fascinating. For the past few years, a garage/psych/pop movement has been brewing in the Bay Area of California, with bands from San Francisco, Oakland, and surrounding communities sharing musical influences and crafting an almost signature sound, a re-interpretation of the more classic California sound of yesteryear, with catchy harmonies, fuzzed out, shimmery guitars and hazy vocals. The Fresh & Onlys have been contributors to this sound in the past, belonging to a group of bands that includes Vetiver, Wooden Shjips, The Morning Benders, and Thee Oh Sees, just to name some of the more well known acts.
On their most recent album, they cast aside whatever geographic influence that might have contributed to their sound and try to tread on some new sonic landscape, with mixed success. The impulse to move away from the sloppier elements of garage influenced music is understandable, especially if the object is to create well-balanced, mature music. But well-balanced, mature pop can be boring, derivative and cheesy on its worst days, and unfortunately there are passages of “Long Slow Dance” which happen to be all of these things.
The album opener, “20 Days and 20 Nights,” illustrates these aspects quite well, and the band comes off as a poor man’s Shout Out Louds, especially lead singer Tim Cohen’s vocals when he sings “And I cry, and I cry.” Things don’t get much better going into the following song, “Yes or No?” which features a well intentioned effort at parallel metaphors that ends up sounding just a bit silly when executed. Verse 1: “When we lived in the water/you said you wanted fire/and so I gave you fire./You kicked it in the water.” Verse 2: “When we lived in the fire/you said you wanted water/and so I gave you water./You threw it in the fire.”
The rest of the album has similar small but questionable moments, but that is not to say there are not salvageable experiences here. “Presence of Mind” is a great song in all aspects, referencing The Cure without being overly deferential as in the album opener. The lyrics are solid, melancholy and complex, and the music is memorable and catchy. Likewise, “Fire Alarm” is a danceable effort that steps up the album’s pace and injects some energy. On both of these songs, the band’s intention to grow their sound is realized, and their efforts at sonic expansion are rewarded.
Regretfully, except for a couple bright moments, the album encapsulates its moniker in mostly negative ways, meaning that listening to this album is quite like being part of a long, uncomfortable slow dance.