All Vanilla, No Spice
The Fresh & Onlys are nothing if not hard working. House of Spirits is the San Franciscan band’s fifth LP since they started in 2008, and by now, they’ve largely abandoned their garage-rock origins in favor of a high fidelity, psych-indie sound. They are more meticulous here than in their past endeavors, but House of Spirits sounds wrongly restrained and fans who once relished in The Fresh and Onlys’ weirdness might feel betrayed.
Like many great folk albums, this album was created out of the pastoral ideal to isolate oneself in nature. But this isn’t a great album, and it’s not that folksy either. Much like Henry David Thoreau still managed to drop laundry off at mom’s place, bandleader Tim Cohen’s transcendentalist homestead was accompanied with a guitar, keyboard and drum machine. Still, the simplicity of wide-open space noticeably informs his minimalistic music. House of Spirits is patient, maybe even too patient.
Opener “Home is Where?” is one of the strongest songs compositionally, with its organ-tinged balladry exploding into a hard-thumping guitar jam. Filled with dream-inspired imagery, this track comes closest to what Cohen identifies as the album’s central premise, the “idea that home is where your feet are.” “Animal of One” is another standout track—it most closely resembles what you might expect from an album inspired by southwest seclusion and its cowboy twang provides the album with some much needed sass—and yet bands like The War on Drugs accomplish the chorus’ New Wave feel with greater effect.
The Fresh & Onlys succeed in creating a sonically rich album, but falter in other regards. Cohen’s not quite compelling enough as a songwriter and vocalist for The Fresh & Onlys to rise above their many competitors in the indie-pop genre. Ideas were half-cooked in the kitchen and Cohen’s vocals—while often interesting lyrically—evoke a tone that is all vanilla, no spice. The band shows its charm in subtle ways but passages somehow hang around for too long while failing to become fully immersive.
The distorted drone on “Madness” is wonderfully discordant and abstract, but this first truly courageous moment and it arrives halfway through the album’s final track. House of Spirits is neither offensively bad nor particularly noteworthy, but as is the case with most art, there’s nothing worse than landing in the middle of the road.