It’s telling that Shayde Sartin, the gregarious bassist of San Francisco’s The Fresh & Onlys, talks about the 32minute pop record and “first song, second side”— arcane concepts when digital media has both enabled releases to bloat regularly to double LP length and the few tracks lucky enough to make the iPod will be heard shuffled between “Jesus is a Dying- Bed Maker” and “It’s Raining Men.”
The Fresh & Onlys’ modest Grey-Eyed Girls is a welcome artifact from The Days Before Garageband, a cacophonous whirl of creaking chairs, barking dogs, slamming doors followed by an avalanche of reverb and yes, also some distorted guitars warbling in the distance, drums that sound like they were recorded under a U-Haul packing blanket gritty doo-wop backups and a lead vocal straight from Calvin Johnson’s pajama party in the haunted hive. It’s a dark, wet, atmospheric record, kinda like surfing a murky end-of-season wave off Coney Island.
Grey-Eyed Girls is welcoming and catchy without sounding precious—this isn’t a historical re-enactment recorded in a reconstructed, period-correct mildewy Olympia bedroom with the “lo-fi charm” plug-in cranked to 10. But the influence of that era of American punk rock on Sartin can’t be overstated: when I recounted a story about hitchhiking across the country at 17 to spend a few blissful days laying in bed with my girlfriend, drinking Carlo Rossi and listening to the cassette of Beat Happening’s “You Turn Me On,” he instantly grokked. “That album gave me wings. It was one of the first things I heard where I was like ‘man, I’m getting a guitar and I’m learning to play and I’m moving to the nearest city!’ Which in my case, wasn’t even a cool city— it was Tampa.” He left home at 18 with the worldly sum of $12 in his pocket and quickly wound up living in an abandoned fishing lure factory in Polk County, Fla. “We had a Rites of Spring tape and a boombox and I remember taking cold showers all day just to cool down and listening to that tape over and over again, you know, dyeing our hair by candlelight. It was amazing.”
Conspicuously absent from the conversation was Tim Cohen, the band’s lyricist and singer, whose lapidary responses in past interviews were in part responsible for Cohen’s promotion to hype man. Sartin offered that the two largest influences on Tim’s worldview and hence his writing were the circumstances of his birth—he was born into a coma, only gaining consciousness after three weeks—and his childhood and adolescence were spent listening almost exclusively to hip-hop, having only relatively recently become a fan of punk and indie rock.This sensation of wide-eyed awakening to a strange, new world is apparent in Cohen’s songs; it’s fun to imagine the endlessly enthusiastic Sartin spinning a laconic Cohen his favorite records deep into the night, the two of them ankle deep in beer cans.
Lyrically, Cohen recalls other prolific aliens as disparate as Daniel Johnston and Robert Pollard. Some lines are sparse, verging on rote or even boring (sample: “I don’t want to be alone”) but sung with enough unselfconscious investment that they’re somehow full of meaning in the context of the songs.Topically, he’s all over the map: “Clowns Took My Baby Away” is followed by “The Delusion of Man.” Cohen’s combination of playfulness, gravitas and clumsy desire is most compelling on tracks like “Dude’s Got a Tender Heart,” which neatly layers sarcasm and sincerity. Not quite a classic, but taken as a whole, Grey-Eyed Girls is hard to resist, like a long, far-ranging conversation with a brilliant and very stoned friend.
> The Fresh & Onlys
Oct. 8, Mercury Lounge, 217 E. Houston St. (betw. Essex & Ludlow Sts.), 212-260-4700; 7:30, $10. Also Oct. 9 at The Bell House.