Hailing from San Francisco, a city with a deep pop history, the Fresh & Onlys belong to a bustling community of local bands that filter summer-of-love pop through punk, indie, and gritty lo-fi. Rather than simply living in the past and playing to their record collections, such acts as Sic Alps, Ty Segall, the Mantles, and Thee Oh Sees are looking backward to find the way forward, using old sounds toward new stylistic and songwriting ends. As purposeful and headstrong as the scene may be, the Fresh & Onlys are wary, and with their third album, the sharp, shambolic Play It Strange, they are distancing themselves further and further from their peers.
For one thing, the Fresh & Onlys know how the story plays out. Once a scene has been defined as such, it's already halfway to fading out, as the bands that created it disperse for national tours and new bands form to take their place.
"We've been deemed a scene and given marginal attention in the press and blogosphere," says guitar player Wymond Miles. "Hence our death sentence and backlash have been foretold."
Scenes die with press cycles, although the artists continue to make music, record, and play out even when nobody beyond the city limits is watching.
"It's nice some people who deserve the attention are getting it, but San Francisco has always had great bands," Miles says. "Just five years back, everyone was looking this way, but the cloaks of genre were a bit different. So everyone forgets."
The members of the Fresh & Onlys have been around long enough to experience that attention wax and wane, each having paid his dues in local acts such as Black Fiction and the Skygreen Leopards. Miles isn't quite sure why this lineup has gelled when others have not, but he's reluctant to analyze it too deeply: "It's difficult to say from the inside, and truthfully we're a bit superstitious about it. We know we have a rare thing going with the creative fire in this band, but we don't stop to examine it. We only bring more wood to burn. If you're chasing the scene or replicating a genre, you're in pursuit of the art, not letting it take hold of you."
If they're reluctant to identify too closely with a particular movement or to reflect too acutely on their own sound or process, it's because they don't want to demystify their muse. As Miles explains, they would rather let the art come to them rather than chase after it: "If you let it, the art beckons you to bring it forth. When you start looking at it the other way around — looking to bring it out — you're in trouble."
So far, the music is gushing forth as if through a burst dam. After only a couple of years together, and despite a few lineup changes, the Fresh & Onlys have threatened to flood the market with seven-inch singles, EPs, and three full-lengths, including Play It Strange.
They've even recorded their follow-up, an as-yet-untitled EP due in the next few months. Those releases cover an array of indie labels, including Woodsist, Captured Tracks, In the Red, and San Francisco-based Castle Face. (If San Francisco has a scene and if that scene has a center, then Castle Face is it.) "Some people won't like our band because of our unapologetically large body of work, but we're just furiously looking to define this sound. Heck, we still get super-stoked for the new songs we write, so let it bleed."
Even among their crowded catalog, Play It Strange stands out. The playing is more confident, the writing more inventive, the melodies fleeter and catchier. With its chiming guitars and reverbed vocals, opener "Summer of Love" nods to local hippie history, yet avoids pastiche by sounding darker and more visceral in its stoned psychedelia: "Drag our burned bodies through a puddle of mud, then use them as a disguise," frontman Tim Cohen sings, hinting that the '60s were anything but hugs and free love. Call it Hate Ashbury.
Paranoia permeates Play It Strange, which portrays Cohen not as San Francisco's Dino Valenti (who wrote the epochal feel-good anthem "Let's Get Together") but as Love's Arthur Lee. Similarly alienated from the L.A. scene in the mid-1960s, Lee punctured hippie bromides in the fierce, fearful pop songs on Forever Changes.
The Fresh & Onlys haven't put quite as fine a point on their paranoia, but even at their most lyrically apprehensive, the simple joy of making music subtly undermines the dark imagery in their songs and suggests a hard-won hopefulness.
"I'm drawn to this style," Miles says, "because I love the sound of blown-out guitars and reverb. It honors the discipline of songwriting but in a completely playful way — not in a stoic manner of entering a temple, but in a jumping in the ocean chasing your dog sort of way that brings your heart fullness."
The Fresh & Onlys
With Royal Baths and Bake Sale
Monday, October 25th, 10 p.m.