Album Review: Fresh Pepper – Fresh Pepper

[Telephone Explosion; 2022]

How lazy do you like service to be in a restaurant? Supposing you aren’t in a hurry to get in and out the door with your belly filled, sometimes it’s a rare pleasure to have the time to just be able to sit and soak up the atmosphere until the staff start putting tables on chairs (assuming you aren’t a critic like Anton Ego, waiting for the last patron the leave so as to find out the identity of the mysterious masterchef). It’s time to digest and maybe even de-stress.

If you’re one of those folks inclined towards the languorous-style of dining, then Fresh Pepper may be the band for you. A sort of supergroup made by Joseph Shabason and Andre Ethier (and consisting of additional members Kieran Adams, Felicity Williams, Robin Dann, Bram Gielen, and Thom Gill), the band have all done time in the service industry, and the eight tracks on this album are a way of processing those past lives through a lens of casual memory. Rarely will you have anything that resembles the stress of a kitchen at rush hour, as the outfit favour a tone that is better described as a nearly-empty diner crawling towards closing time.

It’s no bad thing to keep all these memories of incorrect orders and stressful customers to the side; Fresh Pepper is like a feverish refuge of a kitchen porter overwhelmed by their environment. Indeed, opening track “New Ways Of Chopping Onions” is something between a 80s TV commercial for a new mall and a glistening daydream, Shabason’s sultry sax a gooey, almost caramel-like feature to get stuck in your head – all before the alarm sound kicks in at the end, jolting you back into reality. Similarly, “Walkin'” revels in a static mindless tone before the bursts of brass enliven it. 

The band potter between instrumental and vocal-led tracks, but, even when there’s singing, Ethier’s voice is so languid that it too can feel like an instrument of calm. On “Prep Cook In The Weeds”, against the molasses-thick slow groove of the bass, his voice takes on a Bill Callahan-esque quality, plain-spoken and reassuring. “Flies on the hands of time,” he relates, his eyes on the clock. On the lackadaisical highlight “Congee Around Me” a sliver of real emotion is hiding in his otherwise banal lyrics (“Mushrooms in the frying pan / Throw another onion in… I told you I deserved it”). Only when Dan Bejar appears on the unassuming centerpiece “Seahorse Tranquiliser” does the tone verge into the more surreal as curious, smirking questions float out into the air; “Seahorse, how do you sleep? / Facedown in the mirror, with the one I love”.

While Fresh Pepper might offer a lazy environment in which to escape, sometimes it goes too far into itself; there are moments when one is left wanting for more to latch on to. (Plus there’s that cover art, which the less said about and the less seen, the better.) There’s no denying the slightly bent chords of “Waiting” or the warped EDM of “Dishpit” (named after the area where dirty dishes are stacked in a kitchen) being curious moments of lazy intrigue, but come the end of the album, the effect somewhat sinks into itself. Six minutes-ish tracks build upon each other like piles of plates gradually towering over the sink. Fresh Pepper is a momentary haven with a welcomingly contrasting tone to what you might expect from service industry trauma, but there’s only so long you can spend in the dream world. Eventually sitting around soaking up the atmosphere is just you stopping the staff going home.