The Fresh & Onlys' debut record, Grey-Eyed Girls, was a murky, clattering, quite often thrilling mash-up of '60s West Coast psych, the Cramps, and ramshackle garage rock that put them at the top of the noise pop heap. On the follow-up, Play It Strange, the San Francisco group cleans up the clatter and noise and ditches the psychobilly influence in favor of a slightly twangy sound that creeps up on country-rock at times. It’s a trade-off most bands make as they mature, nuance instead of noise, and the Fresh & Onlys manage to do it well by keeping most of the things that made them good, like the catchy songwriting, the intense performances, and singer Timothy Cohen's deeply idiosyncratic vocals. He’s a little less affected and arch this time out, which makes him less unique-sounding, but he gives the words and melodies a little more emotional pull. His voice fits like a puzzle piece into the newly full and rich sound the band creates using walls of guitars, plenty of reverb, and -- unlike on Grey-Eyed Girls -- lots of woody-feeling organ. Plus, even though the sound is cleaned up, there are still plenty of times when the feedback and excessive reverb take over (the middle section of the epic-length jam “Tropical Island Suite,” the romping “Plague of Frogs”) and give the listener a jolt. Mostly though, the record sounds like an '80s college rock album made on a shoestring budget. A really good one. In fact, if it were the '80s instead of the 2010s, some of the tracks might even catch on and be radio hits. “Summer of Love” is a sweet-sounding but lyrically harrowing midtempo ballad that would sound great over the airwaves, “Until the End of Time” twangles like classic R.E.M., “Be My Hooker” is a pleasingly rambunctious rocker, and “I’m a Thief” ends the album with a swelling '50s-influenced ballad that would sound perfect in a John Hughes student film shot on Super 8. Taken as pieces, these songs are prime 2000s indie rock; added together they make Play It Strange a satisfying step forward for the band.
AllMusic Review by Tim Sendra