What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Thee Oh Sees? Probably their riot-sparking live show, right? Visions of a guitar-chewing, speaker-smothering, tongue-wagging John Dwyer careening across your cranium, chased by a wild-eyed wrecking crew that drives every last hook home like it’s a nail in the coffin of what you thought it meant to make 21st century rock ’n’ roll?
Yeah, that sounds about right. But it misses a more important point—how impossible Thee Oh Sees have been been to pin down since Dwyer launched it in the late ‘90s as a solo break from such sorely missed underground bands as Pink and Brown and Coachwhips. (While Dwyer often records songs on his own, Thee Oh Sees is now a four-piece featuring keyboardist/singer Brigid Dawson, guitarist Petey Dammit, and drummer Mike Shoun)
That restlessness extends to everything from the towering, 13-minute title track of 2010’s Warm Smile LP to the mercurial moods of 2008’s The Master’s Bedroom Is Worth Spending a Night In. And then there’s the Bay Area band’s recent track record, including a scrappy tour split with Total Control, the home-brewed symphonies of Castlemania and the high wire hooks of Carrion Crawler/The Dream, which dropped a second drum set among sunburnt organs, dovetailing guitars and rail-jumping rhythms.
Blast any of the above and it’s hard not to see the psych-steeped parallels between Dwyer’s manic music and his canvas-splattering artwork, which looks like it was torn from a shelf of twisted underground comics. Colorful and confounding in a way that’s more than welcome, then. In fact, it’s downright refreshing, like a slap in the face at 5 in the morning. Of if you prefer a slightly more subtle musical awakening, there’s always Putrifiers, the latest in a long line of Oh Sees LPs that expands the group’s sound well past your friendly neighborhood garage band. So while the space odyssey nods of “Wax Face” actually sound like they’re meant to melt your ears straight off, the record’s full of deviant detours, from the poison-tipped string parts and Eno-esque engineering of “So Nice” to the groove-locked Krautrock inclinations of “Lupine Dominus.”
The most noticeable element may be Dwyer’s melodies, however, as they reveal a softer side to his songwriting, one that makes perfect sense considering just how disparate his dust-clearing influences are. Scott Walker, the Velvet Underground, The Zombies and the experimental Japanese act Les Rallizes Denudes are but a small taste of what informed Thee Oh Sees this time around, as Dwyer returned to the multi-instrumental ways of Castlemania—full band sessions for another record are already underway—and rounded out a fuller, drier sound with drummer/engineer Chris Woodhouse and such special guests as Mikal Cronin (sax), Heidi Maureen Alexander (trumpet, vocals) and K Dylan Edrich (viola).
Which leaves one question: are The Oh Sees going to bring it down a notch live now as well?
“I will still strike an audience in the brain,” Dwyer assures us all, although he admits, “Maybe every now and then it would be okay if we relaxed a little.”