Graded on a Curve:
Thee Oh Sees,
Floating Coffin

Thee Oh Sees have a lot of records out, but those new to the band shouldn’t feel daunted by the high number of choices that comprise their impressive body of work. Please don’t worry about where to best dip that introductory toe; just strip down and jump right in. A great place to start would be with their new one Floating Coffin. It finds them largely in unabashed rocking mode, and after repeated spins it connects as their most approachable and quite possibly their finest record to date.

Since solidifying under the name The Oh Sees in 2008, the San Francisco based band has issued seven full-length albums of original material and a 2LP compilation Singles Vol. 1 & 2 amongst other releases of varying shapes and sizes. This has gained them a reputation for prolificacy. It’s an assessment that’s pretty accurate, but the stability of their moniker and the consistency of lineup that came with it also brought an adjustment in style, the group targeting a sound that can perhaps be best described as heavy and expansive garage.

Bluntly, the type of sweet gravy The Oh Sees have been cooking up is best concocted without any unnecessary fussing over the ingredients or needless delay in offering it to the masses for consumption. Busy beavers they certainly are, but it’s not like the band are giving Robert Pollard a run for his money in the Confounding Accumulation of Output Department.

Plus, with each new release The Oh Sees slip a little bit further away from their early summarization as the project of the guy that was in The Coachwhips and Pink and Brown. Indeed, part of the current band’s rep for productivity kinda stems from John Dwyer’s former participation in roughly a dozen outfits (others included The Hospitals, Burmese, Zeigenbock Kopf, and Sword + Sandals), an insurmountable spurt of activity that began in the late ‘90s.

Another of Dwyer’s bits of business, dating all the way back to 1997, was called Orinoka Crash Suite. That got shortened to OCS and then expanded to The Ohsees. There were also moments utilizing The Oh Sees and apparently Orange County Sound. The material released under this shifting banner (at least what I’ve been able to wrap my ears around) lands squarely in the arena of left-field home recording.

2006’s The Cool Death of Island Raiders gives off strong vibes of outsider psyche-folk with lo-fi experimental touches and even occasional hints of The Shaggs, and the following year’s Sucks Blood is made up of very similar stuff.

But all this is a different kettle of trout from the forward motion The Oh Sees throw down. Or so it might seem. Stories abound over their ability to turn a packed club inside out (never have I witnessed this with my own being, but various YouTube clips do bear witness to this claim), yet the records possess an acumen that’s a cut above the norm for raucous, non-retro garage.

So it’s unsurprising that a big hunk of Thee Oh Sees’ discography post-’08 found a home on the In the Red record label, that imprint being one of the USA’s finest in delivering smart bashing to interested parties. However, the LP that properly kicked-off the current manifestation of the band, The Master’s Bedroom is Worth Spending a Night In, was waxed-up by Castle Face Records, home of their Bay Area compadre Ty Segall.

Floating Coffin finds The Oh Sees returning to Castle Face after five slabs for In the Red. The sound of the new record finds them at their most cohesively (and forebodingly) rocking, and is a fine diversion from last year’s excellent, if at times quite melodious, Putrifiers II.

As they’ve been trucking along at such an active clip, the group have strengthened and widened their template, managing to integrate some of Dwyer’s earlier outsider tendencies into the stew without any evolutionary friction. Never have they come off as normal, which means they could throw an oddball curve like 2011’s Castlemania into the mix without disturbing their growing fan base. Upon consideration, that’s quite an impressive feat for a band that’s generally tagged as garage.

Dwyer’s an unrepentant ‘60s guy, but any nods he makes toward paisley or foofery are matched with the teeth-gnashing presence of strychnine. And when he draws on Nuggets, it often comes through the tougher, stranger material of that tradition like the 13th Floor Elevators. A thread of sincere psychedelia runs through the Thee Oh Sees work, but it’s an uneasy one, their sound as invested in Krautrock as it is in the rougher outbound strains found in their home city’s Ballroom-era.

And Dwyer’s been the dominant presence, though as stated previously, the solidity of collaborators has greatly increased their impact as a band. A big part of the reason is keyboardist/vocalist Brigid Dawson, her involvement with Dwyer surfacing as far back as Sucks Blood. The way the pair alternates vocal duties has become one of Thee Oh Sees most endearing qualities.

Another factor lies in those Krautrock excursions; what first surfaced on the opening title track to 2010’s Warm Slime really asserted itself on the following year’s Carrion Crawler/The Dream, specifically on “Chem-Farmer,” a wickedly unwavering instrumental that recalls the early work of Can. Trace elements of the form also turn up in that album’s more garage-rock situated “The Dream.”

Those that love Carrion Crawler/The Dream for its abundance of that thing we call rock will most assuredly find much to dig on Floating Coffin. Up to this point in their existence it connects as their most unified flat-out band statement while also being a very strong batch of songs, achieving this standard through directness, but without sacrificing the group’s twisted-‘60s individualism.

Each of the record’s ten tracks is way more than up to snuff, but the sequencing is stacked to cultivate standouts. Naturally, there is a killer opener. “I Come from the Mt.” holds a hearty serving of their by now intensely-practiced rhythmic dynamism. In similarity to a certain San Fran psychedelic rock staple, they often utilize two drummers, Mike Shoun and Lars Finberg of The Intelligence, and it’s a huge part of what distinguishes them from the heavy garage standard.

But never have I heard them dealing so openly with the dense aesthetic of The Ramones. That it’s fleshed out with some thick effects-laden guitar and the typically judicious appearance of Dawson’s keyboard and voice only ups the ante. This relationship to punk is far from a new development for Thee Oh Sees, but it’s refreshing to hear this constantly evolving band expressing it so directly and casually.

An opening song this powerful needs an equally impressive follow-up, and “Toe Cutter/Thumb Buster” succeeds. Dawson takes the lead on the cut, a pulsing mid-tempo loaded with crashing cymbals and a sturdy bass throb from Petey Dammit (I’m assuming the name is a Fellini reference.) Dwyer’s considerable guitar playing is drizzled all over the place, though he smartly lies back when Dawson’s at the microphone.

The title track is a slam-bang punk raver again helmed by Dawson’s attractive vocalizing, but some real juice is provided by the next cut, “No Spell.” It’s the first of Floating Coffin’s two superb centerpieces, alternating Krautrock tension with moments of roaring release, and their admirable grasp of the Germanic brings positive associations with the similarly-themed work that emerged a couple of decades back via the Too Pure label.

The fact that Dawson’s singing more than ever only adds to this connection. When Dwyer steps to the mic things can take a nifty turn for the Segall, particularly on the first minute and a half of “Strawberries 1 + 2.” When the song shifts into Dawson’s section however, it brings a slower, moodier repetition.

Side two’s opener “Maze Fancier” is best described as a Krautrock stomp, and is surely destined to lay waste to live crowds when they take it out on the road. Joining with “No Spell” as the second of Floating Coffin’s dual highpoints, the only bummer is that it’s just a shade over three minutes long; it could easily go on for another ten (probably will on stage), so gripping is the song’s driving rhythmic engine and Dwyer’s subtle subversion of rock-anthem guitar heroics. The punch packed by Dawson’s vocal simplicity is the song’s splendid capper.

That sort of tightly-wound energy isn’t easily replicated from track to track, so “Night Crawler” downshifts into a mid-tempo hunk of noisy psych. “Sweet Helicopter” picks up the pace somewhat, including more of Dwyer’s guitar swells and a cool keyboard passage, but the final two cuts bring the record to a laudable conclusion.

“Tunnel Time” begins as another uptempo pounder, but the addition of a very likeable flute excursion again underscores Thee Oh Sees’ dedication to psychedelic concerns, though it’s considerably closer to Kaftwerk’s debut album than to the floating lilt of so much late-‘60s flute-kissed (or maybe kitsched) psych behavior.

And “Minotaur” adds some choice viola to the album’s final (and only) popish grace note. While Floating Coffin’s lyrical side isn’t exactly laid out a silver platter for easy consumption (a good thing), upon inspection the words do emit a dark quality, and “Minotaur” brings a certain level of respite. That said, the tune ain’t exactly cheerful, and it closes the LP with estimable acuity.

Up to now, Thee Oh Sees have largely been about the diversity of Dwyer’s thing, but the individual albums have sorta pounded home a certain idea in that tried-and-true tradition of the garage. Yes, Putrifiers II emerged as a deft blend of their rock and cracked-pop sides (kept largely separate on Carrion Crawler/The Dream and Castlemania), but if a terrific record, it wasn’t overly rocking or all that cracked.

Instead, Floating Coffin transforms their rocking side into what just might be the best album Thee Oh Sees have yet released. Time will only tell if they’ll continue in this mode or choose to divert into one of their many other potential avenues, but until then this LP finds them at the top of their game.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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