I’m not sure if it’s possible for someone who hasn’t picked up a guitar and tried to write a good song to understand how GODDAMN, MOTHERFUCKING HARD it is to write not only a good song but even an original-but-mediocre one. When songsters like The Fresh & Onlys’ Tim Cohen — formerly of Black Fiction, whom I reviewed years ago and was iffy on — string together bright light after bright light, it makes most of us wonder why we can’t get our bulbs to burn as strongly, does it not?
Last year’s full-length, Grey-Eyed Girls, for me, was one of 2009’s Revelations, despite the impression it was a stop-gap, an in-betweener, with Playing it Strange serving as the (I’m quoting a press release for the first time ever here) “full-on studio record.” That’s not how it turned out, though: Grey-Eyed Girls may turn out to be the record people are going to remember dearest. Mark my words, people; it’s special.
Pushing the past aside, Cohen’s definitely got the good shit once again on Play it Strange, though it should be noted that Strange has got three compositions — which were re-recorded, methinks — that at least 200 people have been crankin’ since the “Bomb Wombs” cassette dropped like a killer dump on punk punters in 2009. Two out of the three tunes are wonderful (“I’m a Thief,” not so much), but I’d be goosin’ ya if I said it didn’t bother me just a little.
But it’s worth it to stuff these sorrys in a sack, mister, because the effin’ Onlys are hotter than Hansel right now, and deservedly so. Taking a punkier path after the often-awkward, gawky, almost Intelligence-ish plunking of Grey-Eyed, the quartet up the tempo a nod and still manage to often stretch their songs to four-odd minutes. It would mimic eternity in the hands of your typical riffers, but this isn’t your typical gang of fo’, Cohen bucking the trends of your typical 10¢ tunesmith.
The twinkling guitar leads bark out at you from the outset, and Shayde Sartin’s getting better at mixing up his string work. As adroit as he is at basically playing the lead vocal high up on his fret to start a song circa Kurt C. — as was often his wont before and probably always will be — he’s occasionally veering off the charts, following his instincts and slamming more home runs as a result. Reminds me of Ride’s “Dreams Burn Down” sometimes, which is like saying it reminds me of fishing in my Grandpa’s farm pond or buying candy with my milk money, which is like saying it’s not only memorable but vivid and distinct.
The lyrics, as per usual, are pretty frickin’ top-notch, too. When Cohen sings, “We’re not the prettiest things in the world/ And we’re not descended from god,” I just melt. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to carry thoughts, not to mention melodies, like this around in one’s back pocket all day like an old, ratty handkerchief, pulling it out occasionally when it’s time to “RATCHOOOO” out another hit or three. (My instinct is to think it would be fun, but who knows? The line between genius and the sort of torment that leads one to go on a watermelon fast or plunk one’s piano on top of a sandbox is razor-thin.)
Playing it Strange isn’t the most awe-inspiring Fresh & Onlys record, but it fits snug on the shelf next to their myriad other records and offers a few of their nicest melody slices yet. This is what lo-fi is meant to do.