The Fresh & Onlys’ 2012 full-length, Long Slow Dance, had a single white carnation on the cover and, like the title, the image signaled the saccharine romantic gestures contained within. But bandleader Tim Cohen’s lyrics balanced the title track’s courtship tropes with more severe ones, like the part where love drags people out of their homes and sets them ablaze. On the San Francisco foursome’s latest album, House of Spirits, Cohen gazes inward, trading love songs for lyrics with imagery culled from dreams. Musically, it’s similar to Long Slow Dance: sauntering drums underpin evenly-balanced arrangements, ornamented by guitarist Wymond Miles’s impeccable lead flourishes, but a pair of left-field tracks excite the thought of a more thorough make-over.
Cohen’s plaintive drawl on “Home is Where?” is populated by kitchen furnishings gone awry — he coos about a “cauldron of hearts” and a “bowl of eyes.” Satan himself shows up uninvited on the next track. It’s outlandish writing, but subtle jokes soften any whiff of indulgence. On “Animal of One,” he issues a cycle of contradictory maxims about purpose and memory. (“The point of forgiving is so you forget/ that being forgiven is all in your mind.”) Take the song’s lines one at a time and they’re cringeworthy; strung together, they read like Cohen mocking his own fondness for philosophizing.
And then there are the departures: Four minutes of shimmering feedback on “Bells of Paonia” situates Cohen’s voice amid strange and surreal textures, and on “Madness,” chintzy drum-machine patter dissolves into pure noise. These experiments suit Cohen’s fantasy narratives wonderfully, especially as his lyrics grow increasingly reflexive and cheeky. If only there were more of them; House of Spirits is at its best when the music is most askew.