The Fresh & Onlys
July 29, 2011
@ The Independent
Better than: Anything on 30-year-old MTV.
Shortly after 9 p.m. on Friday, the line outside the ticket window at the Independent stretched beyond the venue's second exit door, almost past the end of the red building itself. Populated with the usual stylish, smoking, impatient-looking S.F. show crowd, it went quickly -- maybe pushed along by the muted racket of the Mantles blaring invitingly through the walls. Inside, the place seemed sparsely populated given the hordes outside, which was too bad: Onstage the local outfit was doling out its dusty garage pop with as much vigor and crispness as ever.
Whether this was due to the band members' playing, or to the higher-quality soundsystem at the Independent (compared to, say, the Eagle -- R.I.P. -- where I've seen them the most times), is unclear. But the Mantles seemed to slowly possess the attention of the filling room, sending out ripples of head-nodding as each set of ears were won over by this basic, innocent guitar music.
As the room it filled up, it became clear that most people were there to see Woods, the Brooklyn folk-rock outfit featuring one Jeremy Earl, polarizing singer. Quite simply, you either love Earl's nasally, wistful voice and his emotive stage presence, or you don't. The unusual -- but narrow -- dimensions of his vocal contributions color everything Woods does, except for its intermittent, fractured instrumental detours.
Facing a now tightly-packed room, the band began with "Pushing Onlys," a yearning folky number from new album Sun and Shade that sounds like it was sung by an 18-inch-tall Neil Young. Sitting smack dab in the middle of the stage was one G. Lucas Crane, anchored behind a table of effects and with a headphone splayed across his face so that one of the earpieces sat directly over his mouth, looking rather like a pacifier. The sonic effect of this was unclear -- Woods sounded noisy but not totally shot-through with effects. The visual, though, remained stubbornly disturbing: Crane appeared at times like a giant infant, a crazed noise wizard, or a loosely secured Hannibal Lecter.
Whatever you think of Earl's voice -- in some ways it's beautiful, in some it's intolerable -- its pointy rasp gives a much-needed edge to Woods' music, which sounds otherwise like a predictable soundtrack made for sensitive kids taking acid. The band's jammy noise explorations never even approached the threat level that Earl can while singing a straightforward pop melody; and it was in those more subtly adventurous moments that Woods was at its best.
Next up was local psych-pop outfit the Fresh & Onlys, which remain the kind of band that inspires fevered fandom in some (read: me) and plain boredom in others. Some attribute this uneven appreciation to their recordings, which lately are transparent and lucid and (some say) dull; others think the live show is too messy and chaotic. We got a little of both sides on Friday.
Frontman Tim Cohen assumed the front of the stage in a neat dress shirt and tie, with a fisherman's cap, and promptly led us off. "Fascinated," one of those newish songs that sounds gorgeously transparent on its recording, seemed much more distended and noisy onstage. "Waterfall," another hit off of the band's latest album, Play It Strange, came together just slightly more, in time for the achingly beautiful guitar solo.
The crowd began to thin out just at the Fresh & Onlys were hitting their stride -- maybe because it was approaching midnight? In any case, those who stayed through the end of "Feelings in My Heart" witnessed the best moment of their set. With the arrival of the song's upward spiraling instrumental climax, it seemed all the band's elements were finally firing together. The mixing was off, but the lesson was clear: The Fresh & Onlys can hit it live just as well as they can in the studio -- and vice versa.
Encore: Members of the Fresh & Onlys came out with members of Woods (including Jeremy Earl!) to cover Graham Nash's "Military Madness." Tim Cohen played the drums on the laid-back country singalong. It was worth sticking around for.
For the record: I like Earl's voice -- there, I said it! -- but some in my group of friends had a hugely negative reaction to it.