Over early afternoon beers in the back of a Western Addition bar, Tim Cohen, frontman of S.F. rock band the Fresh & Onlys, explains his skewed approach to writing a love song. "A way we obscure love songs is by folding these themes of love, desire, and loss into joyous melodies," he says. So while Long Slow Dance, the latest album from Cohen's prolific and versatile rock band, seems to be full of straight-ahead love songs, most of them aren't quite that simple. These tunes are rife with contradictions intended to articulate the full, difficult spectrum of love. Even in the music's interaction with the lyrics, conflict abounds: The most elated musical segments often operate beneath the darkest vocal passages.
Such sharp contrasts aren't new for the Fresh & Onlys, but they prove more evocative on Long Slow Dance than on any of the band's past efforts. The group's first release on Brooklyn label Mexican Summer — its first of a multi-album deal — sees the S.F. foursome coming out into the open sonically, shedding a lot of the effects and echo that used to obscure their songwriting. Cohen is frank about the band's intentions: "We tried to write good songs, play them really well, and make them sound really good. Then we thought, 'Why haven't we been doing this the entire time?'"
The name of the album at first seems to describe a saccharine romantic cliché, but Long Slow Dance feels cheeky after hearing the title track, which Cohen says is about "true love dragging you out into the road and setting fire to your soul." That kind of severe imagery runs throughout the record, seemingly at odds with the cover image of a single white carnation. But again, the conflict is all part of the point: The enveloping, confusing, and often damaging experience of love or, as Cohen describes in characteristically poetic terms, "reeling from a loss of love that I could never understand," permeates Long Slow Dance. On the straightforward "20 Days and 20 Nights," the refrain in which Cohen repeatedly croons "I cry" is underpinned by an exalted musical release. "Someone can listen to that and not be able to tell if it's a joke or if it's real or happy or sad," Cohen says. "That's what makes music compelling [and] bear repeated listening."
In person, Cohen's austere demeanor and distressed ensemble fits the image of a forlorn romantic. Locks of hair protrude from a haggard ball cap and an assortment of metal charms dangle from his neck. Although a beard obscures most of his face, Cohen's stoic expression and unwavering eye contact is intimidating. His focus isn't surprising given the Fresh & Onlys' prolific output: Long Slow Dance is the band's fifth album in four years, in between a slew of singles, compilation appearances, and EPs. Meanwhile, lead guitarist Wymond Miles released and toured behind a solo album earlier this year, and Cohen busily performs and records with his own solo project, Magic Trick.
Having released their first album on John Dwyer's Castle Face label, along with Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall, the Fresh & Onlys got lumped in with San Francisco's lauded "garage" scene, although their music didn't sound the part. Even the band's most primitive recordings reveal a dynamic pop sensibility drawing from jangly '80s rock, Paisley Underground, and docile psych. Nevertheless, journalists quickly categorized them as garage, to Cohen's chagrin. "We've done so many interviews where we've dispelled that notion that hopefully it will stick eventually."
Long Slow Dance may finally put that adjective to rest. The album doesn't sound at all like a garage record: Miles' guitar leads in "No Regard" are pristine and mature, while Cohen's vocals are clear and crisp. The title track is a quiet, mostly acoustic ballad, punctuated by glassy guitar melodies and tambourine. Although tracked to tape, the new album was made at Lucky Cat Recording in San Francisco, unadorned by the dense effects that muddled earlier work.
"We used to hide behind our caveman sensibilities ... and a lot of reverb and distortion," Cohen says. Now, though, the Fresh & Onlys are out dancing in the light, confident and focused on harvesting the ambitious pop planted in earlier material. Despite his new songs' warped, nuanced take on love, Cohen credits his bandmates with much of the music's development. "I like people to know that all of my songs are written by mistake," he says. "However, when they put the instruments down on tape, everything is done with intention."