There’s a lot to be said for playing it strange, but on the tireless Fresh & Onlys’ third album, the band takes its own wisdom to head first, heart second. Take the album’s leadoff track, “Summer of Love,” a garden-variety contact buzz of a song that The Byrds might have written 45 years ago. It would clip-clop right on by without leaving an impression, except that its lyrics, a garden-variety nightmare where the song’s title rhymes with “puddle of blood,” etc., seem calculated to arrest your attention. “What a strange juxtaposition,” you’re prompted to say, rather than “What an ordinary song,” or “what is the point of making this song in 2010?”
On the other hand, the next track, “Waterfall,” is terrific. Hard to say why: Tim Cohen’s knotty logic about TV vs. radio just works better than it should, ducking along above a loping chain-gang shuffle with well-placed choral oohs, a simple guitar solo, interesting drums and shimmering distortion in the chorus that actually sounds like water falling. There’s nothing urgent or trippy about it compared to “Summer of Love,” which is maybe the trick; if anything, it sounds like it was deemed a good enough song to leave unbestranged. Album closer “I’m A Thief,” though rather different in tone, sells its wares equally convincingly.
But most of the other songs weren’t given that faith, and their weird gestures tend to come across as efficiently, self-consciously weird. “Fascinated” is a winner on melodic strength alone, and its anti-chorus cuts into hazy psychedelia feel unnecessary; the last four minutes of “Tropical Island Suite” drag the first three into an annoying reverb soup. It’s commendable to make the effort to keep things moving, especially given that the band’s songs are prone to comfortable grooves where one loses track of time — on another album this might have been the primary complaint. But at the same time as Play It Strange covers plenty of ground and suggests that the folks in The Fresh & Onlys are far from out of compelling ideas, it also finds the band playing at a kind of strangeness that sounds suspiciously like work.