Steve Wilson. On music.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thee Oh Sees - carrion crawler/the dream ep (In The Red)

Ah, it’s sweet really. The noise generation is meeting me half-way. I remember back in 2003 when a young pal tried to introduce me to Pink & Brown. I try to keep an open mind. Really, I do. My shelves are full of records and discs with music that the average listener would call noise. But I always viewed noise as something that best served as energy and expression tools for … I dunno, songs? From the MC5 to Sonic Youth the racket was seasoning and juicing to rock ‘n’ roll. So, all this Pink & Brown, Lightning Bolt shit left me perplexed. I love a racket, but this was a new kind of racket – primitive, artless, tuneless. Meh. Was I missing something?

Well, the answer is: a) not really and b) maybe a little something.

Which leads us to our man John Dwyer, he’s the prolific force behind Pink & Brown, the Coachwhips, Hospitals, and most recently Thee Oh Sees (among others). The Coachwhips wanted to be the Oblivians but were without the limited skills and lyric sensibility required for such homage. But they were better than Pink & Brown. The Hospitals? I never listened to them enough to have much of an opinion. When I heard Dwyer had yet another band - this one called Thee Oh Sees, I approached them with trepidation.

But from the beginning I kinda liked what I heard. In addition to the annals of noise racket, Dwyer seemed to have absorbed lessons from psychedelia (the kind with spaces between the noises) as well as the urgent, fuzz-toned rhythms of the bands that were featured on Crypt Records Back from the Grave compilations. Thee Oh Sees release something new every four months (okay, close to it). Seriously, they’ve put out about thirteen records in seven years (under various monikers, relying on TOS for the last four or so years), depending on what you count and who’s counting. The band’s latest offering carrion crawler/the dream EP (lower case is theirs’) is an arresting synthesis of the various strains that run through the band’s music, especially a combination of Help’s psycho-trips and Castlemania’s Cali-garage-pop, music that sounded touched by San Francisco garage peers like Ty Segall and the Fresh and Onlys.

Now, lest you think that Thee Oh Sees have gone all Stephin Merritt on your ass, rest assured the lyrics to these fairly fetching ditties still resemble the jottings of a mental patient on the page. But they work on the songs, and that’s what matters. Generally, they convey your standard disorientation and disillusionment. “Robber Barons” anticipates an OWS (Occupy Wall Street) social climate (“we turn our backs on kings and queens”). “The Dream” is a nitrous-mare on the slim edge between dreams and reality. In “Wrong Idea” a wolf kills a dude; it’s short, not sweet, and grisly as it presumes the final indignity of being “forgotten.” Have a beer, kids.

“Crushed Glass” is “Last Kiss” on mescaline, faintly describing a car crash “under tired teenaged eyes.” “Heavy Doctor” paints a nightmare eco-tastrophe in which the singer is “alive but mighty sick I am to be.” Tell it to Cormac McCarthy, dudes.

Fortunately, the thrilling garage-psych murk that supports these portraits from the Cuckoo’s Nest is damn near program perfect. “Carrion Crawler” melds the descending chords from the Amboy Dukes' “Journey to the Center of the Mind” to a Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd riff drive. A Sterling Morrison meets Mike Bloomfield guitar explosion rips out of the Damned “Neat Neat Neat” rhythms of  ‘Contraption/Soul Desert.” “Robber Barons” kicks off and sustains a beautifully dumb set of Troggs/Kinks syncopations, while “Chem-Farmer” sounds like the Detroit Wheels at a Kool-Aid test. A Black Angels kinship, generally audible, is especially obvious on the “The Dream,” where Brigid Dawson (mistress of all things cool and creepy on cheap electronic keyboards) takes lead vocal and on “Crack in Your Eye” with its opening downbeat-heavy strobe-throb. Guitarists Dwyer and Petey Dammit coax all kinds of Sixties-psych sounds out of their guitars and amps, from distortion saturated six-string blasts to jangling twelve-string sounds, from garage-fuzz grease to Barry Melton licks from the first psychedelic era in the Haight. The double-drumming that powers these tracks by Michael Shoun and Lars Finberg (on loan from the Intelligence) is sharp, powerful, and never excessive.

The band sounds decidedly Nuggets/Pebbles/Grave on tracks like “Robber Barons” and ‘Wrong Idea,” like the Reigning Sound (if they were full of ‘shrooms instead  of bourbon) on “Crushed Grass” and more than a little like compatriots of the Black Lips and Jay Reatard (but the early Young Rascals, too) on “Heavy Doctor,” the latter a bona fide set-closing monster.

So, in other words, Thee Oh Sees … all over the place – but interesting places, well collated. An ear for song construction and tunes, lacking from Dwyer’s earliest music, accompanies the band’s strong arrangements and performances. Along with the Black Angels, Wooden Shjips, the Fresh and Onlys and other current bands with roots in psych, garage and pop, Thee Oh Sees are making the world safe for a new generation of kids hiding behind beaded curtains and the smell of incense. 

Reverberating: 8.4

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