Fresh & Onlys leader Tim Cohen began working on his band’s new album while staying at what the press notes describe as “an isolated horse ranch in Arizona,” where he had ensconced himself with a guitar, a keyboard and a drum machine. Heading into isolation with that much gear seems a little extravagant, like bringing a crème brulee torch along on the Appalachian Trail, but hey, we live in an age of excess.
The San Francisco band credits Cohen’s stint in the desert with inspiring the feel of House of Spirits, which seeks to capture the vast, open scope of the unsettled southwest. Sometimes it succeeds. Drawing from garage rock, psychedelia and indie-pop, The Fresh & Onlys’ songs have long employed jangling guitars and hazy reverb. The foursome pushes those elements further here: guitars crackle with the jagged snap of heat lightning on opener “Home Is Where?” and an arid, chugging drone contrasts with the atmospheric melody on “Bells of Paonia” for a woozy, mirage-like effect. “Hummingbird” barrels along on a rubbery bassline and saguaro-worthy spikes of guitar, and the bouncy “April Fools” flickers past like a fever dream.
Not all the songs on House of Spirits have as much personality, or so defined a sense of place. With their gently flowing guitars and plaintive vocals, “Animal of One” and “I’m Awake” could have been less interesting Shins outtakes circa Wincing the Night Away, while “Ballerina” treads water prettily without ever plunging into the depths. Sometimes it’s a waiting game: the stuttering bassline on “Candy” unfolds into a soaring, catchy chorus, and the wallpaper-y synths on album closer “Madness” eventually give way to tremors of dissonance that disrupt the placid surface. Those are the moments worth hanging in for, and they elevate House of Spirits beyond merely ordinary when they happen.