The Fresh & Onlys have never been a complicated band. Their songs do not necessarily unfold in terribly unexpected ways. They don’t having jarringly angular song structures or deliriously vibrant beats. They are a rock band, in the same pop vein as such ’60s and ’70s luminaries The Beatles or The Beach Boys. And like those seminal bands, The Fresh & Onlys work wonders in what some could consider a fairly limited musical range. Of course, The Beatles eventually broke off into eccentric psychadelics and The Beach Boys grew more determinedly serious as they progressed, but The Fresh & Onlys have settled into a far more simplistic idea of artistic progression and creative output. This evolution began slowly as their earlier releases were more tenaciously garage-y in terms of their sonic fidelity and felt more in line with the rough-around-the-edges bands that lined the roster of any number of Nuggets compilations. But it’s their innate sense of melody and lead singer Tim Cohen’s honeyed vocals that have always been the band’s real strength.
There have been hints of this gradual evolution on their last few records, as well as on lead singer Tim Cohen’s unabashedly pop-centric solo album Magic Trick, which was released in the first half of 2011. But the absolute rock ‘n’ roll throwback of Long Slow Dance places the band firmly within the realm of influence and homage. Not that this is necessarily a bad place to be, but it seems there’s a looming threat of having their musical preferences excessively influence their own identity.
Thankfully, that’s not the case on Long Slow Dance, as the tracks rush by in a fizzy blur of sparkling guitars and sugar-coated harmonies that owe as much to the band’s own artistic ingenuity as it does to the influence of those bands from which they obviously draw inspiration. As much as classic ’50s and ’60s rock ‘n’ roll lends itself to being a vehicle for very specific feelings of nostalgia, so too does Long Slow Dance conjure memories of summer nights at the drive-in, dances under full moons, and “Peggy Sue” blaring from the radio. Blatant romanticism may be a rare thing in music lately, but it’s not completely gone, something to which The Fresh & Onlys can easily attest.
Opening track “20 Days and 20 Nights” takes the pristine veneer of jangle pop and digs through its own personal record collection for a copy of Rocket To Russia to play alongside it. If Buddy Holly had been weaned on “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” this track would be the result, a song with as much urgency hiding beneath its shifting surface as quiet nostalgic longing. Treading more deeply into ’50s pop, “Long Slow Dance” evokes a innocence forgotten through the years. As much an homage to the pop singers of Holly’s time as it is an optimistic statement from the band, this song weaves a curiously effective tale of longing, regret, and the eventual recognition of love’s conditions over swathes of gossamer guitars and Cohen’s lithe vocals. A fact made perfectly clear when Cohen sings “True love will drag you out into the road/ And set fire to your soul,” which doesn’t come across as cutting or bitter but rather conveys a sense of anticipation for the possibilities and expectations of love.
The album segues between ’50s-style pop ballads (“Dream Girls”) and the more indie rock-oriented tracks like “Euphoria” and “Fire Alarm” without much difficulty, though it does suffer a bit from the band playing it too safe in some instances. Even within the jangle-pop genre, songs need to be given room to develop and bloom, and on Long Slow Dance, that ability is hampered a bit by The Fresh & Onlys’ insistence on pop traditionalism. The same thing that anchors their well-wrought aesthetic also keeps the record from really taking off and giving the band a chance to fully explore the interesting musical nuances that we catch intermittent glimpses of throughout the tracks. Though “Foolish Person,” the six minute pop opus that hovers over the last half of the album, does make a fine case that the band has the ability to break free from this type of self-imposed musical constraint and allows them the flexibility to experiment a bit with the genre. The guitars churn and drag the listener along in a wake of distortion and ragged solos that feel aggressive and quite unlike anything else on the record. The song feels looser and more unstructured in spirit and seems to show the band in a more lyrically deadpan mood, a change in attitude that suits the rather pleasantly monochromatic range of the album.
Long Slow Dance calls to mind the casual ease of pop music. Nothing seems forced. The notes bend and expand effortlessly under the band’s careful direction. And while the album may err one too many times on the side of caution and doesn’t venture much beyond its superficial pop veneer–“Foolish Person” notwithstanding–it still shows a band attempting to, and generally succeeding at, conveying the warmth and exuberance of summer. And during the last weeks of this season, it’s an album well worth spending time with for a last minute extension of the warmth that these past few months have brought.