Despite announcing a “well-deserved break” last fall, Thee Oh Sees released “Drop,” their fifth full-length album in four years, on Record Store Day (April 19). Running the gamut from heavy guitar fuzz to psychedelic synths, “Drop” is a diverse little beast of a record that makes pointed nods to the band’s own past as well a broad scope of influences. To grasp the full scope of “Drop’s” intelligent design, one must look to the band’s own evolution over the past decade.
Achieving a detailed understanding of Thee Oh Sees’s prolific career — including a baker’s dozen full-lengths, mountains of singles and EPs, and a handful of name changes — easily requires an annotated infographic and a week of uninterrupted listening, but we’ll settle for a sparse outline.
Thee Oh Sees started out as Orinoka Crash Suite, an outlet for front man John Dwyer’s more experimental, instrumental home recordings while he focused on his primary projects like Pink and Brown and Coachwhips. With the release of 1 in 2003 (often referred to as “34 Reasons Why Life Goes On Without You/18 Reasons to Love Your Hater To Death”), Dwyer abbreviated the name to OCS and it proved to be an inexhaustible spring of weird, lovely soundscapes. Two albums followed under this name, each a lo-fi melancholic romp through lazy San Francisco summers (see: “The Pool” and “If I Had A Reason”).
Over the next four years, OCS evolved to The Oh Sees and finally to Thee Oh Sees, with several members added to the lineup, and the release of three LPs: “Cool Death of Island Raiders,” “Sucks Blood,” and “The Master’s Bedroom is Worth Spending a Night In.” The latter of these releases marked a sharp genre shift to a heavier, fuzzier garage rock sound — with a tinge of psychedelia — which would become the group’s hallmark sound (see: “Ghost in the Trees”).
2008 saw the release of the glorious “Thee Hounds of Foggy Notion,” a live CD/DVD comprised of previously released and unreleased tracks. Characterized by dreamy, psych-folk guitar strums and fuzzy vocals, this album is both a perfect condensation of the group’s earlier low-budget, hallucinatory mumbles and an ideal accompaniment to wonderfully dreary afternoons (see now: the enchanting “Make Them Kiss”).
From 2009-13, Thee Oh Sees released a remarkable six LPs, each a further refinement of the group’s signature marriage of garage and psychedelic rock. “Floating Coffin,” self-released in 2013 on Dwyer’s Castle Face Records, features a kaleidoscope vision of sharp teeth and strawberries–and that’s just the cover. A precarious balance between absolute sonic chaos and control is struck on the 10-track album, which includes sinister laughter, lurid guitar solos, and a fair share of “la la la”s. As Pitchfork notes in their review, “Behind every infectious riff, there’s a dark undertone. What’s behind the strawberries on the album’s cover? A murderous gaze. What’s behind the earworm hooks and vamp-filled rock ‘n’ roll? Lyrics about splattered blood and dead children. There are a few references to ‘the maze’ as it relates to the narrator’s descent into madness.”
This brings us to the present day and “Drop.” Recorded in — of all places — a banana-ripening warehouse, with a tweaked line-up including drummer Chris Woodhouse and Ty Segall collaborator Mikal Cronin, it doesn’t quite match the frenzied heights of its predecessor, but it’s still a diverse and hypnotizing psych-punk ride in its own right.
In the context of their sprawling body of work, “Drop’s” nine feedback-heavy, reverb rich tracks prove that Thee Oh Sees are damned good at doing whatever they want–whether it’s razor sharp garage rock, melancholy introspection, or a more experimental psychedelic sound. “Drop” has a dash of each.
The unrestrained riff monster of “Penetrating Eye” is bookended with the melancholy orchestral, “Lens,” and in between, Beatles-era dreaminess that blossoms into tangerine skies and psych-punk sugar (see: “The King’s Noise”). Thee Oh Sees’ evolution over the years–and enormous reserve of influences–clearly informs “Drop’s” pastiche of oozing guitar and lysergic synths.
Constant shifts between tempo and sonic texture keep the album from even approaching the realm of boring, intimating instead that we have been taken along for a adrenaline-fueled drive along a cliff, which we might fly off of at any moment. And yet, the album has an overall coherence to it all that must only come with years of dabbling in various genres.
Perhaps this cohesion is due, in part, to Dwyer’s lyrical fixation on visual perception. “Penetrating Eye,” “Camera,” “Transparent World” and “Lens” all confront the distorted lens between reality and the observer: “You look through the lens today/All is cracked and hazy.” In “Penetrating Eye,” “somebody with stolen eyes” stares at passersby. Is it a comment on the skewed lens of technology we now view the world through? LSD-like effects of the banana-ripening chemicals? A critique of selfies? While the latter of these is doubtful, the thematic unity of these tracks adds depth to the already bottomless spring of Thee Oh Sees. Here’s to hoping their indefinite hiatus is more of a spring break than a permanent expulsion from the unique sonic stratosphere Thee Oh Sees occupy alone.
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