You may not remember this, but Thee Oh Sees went on hiatus at one point. John Dwyer put his long-term musical project on hold for a much-deserved rest at the end of 2013. Why you might not remember this break is because, for the Thee Oh Sees, it lasted five months. Before the band’s hiatus, Dwyer and his players had just completed an amazing run of albums, concluding with Floating Coffin and a third singles collection. But less than half a year after taking a break, the group was back in April 2014 with Drop and then last year with Mutilator Defeated at Last.
If there wasn’t much of a break in terms of time, Thee Oh Sees’ sound definitely shifted by the time Drop came around. A Weird Exits, the band’s new album and first with Dwyer accompanied by two drummers—Dan Rincon and Ryan Moutinho—and bass player Tim Hellman, both continues and breaks from that shift. Drop and Mutilators Defeated at Last took some of the headier sounds at the edges of previous Thee Oh Sees records and put them front and center. The albums both dove into blippy, psychedelic layering. They were different records, for sure. Mutilators was a bit leaner than Drop, but also more strange in its second half.
On both records, guitar and other instruments piled the textures on. Even spacier moments were filled up with squeaks and squalls. Despite interesting new sounds, there was still a basement-show tightness, a stacking up to the music. Playing with a three-person rhythm section has shifted the dynamic on A Weird Exits. It’s not a corrective. The previous two records were great, tangled rock records. But there’s a subtle, exciting shift on this record that breathes new life in Thee Oh Sees’ sound, no small feat on the project’s umpteenth album.
Instead of piling on, sounds stretch out on this record. The change is clear on opener “Dead Man’s Gun”. For one, they’ve balanced the reverb on the guitars and vocals perfectly here. But as Dwyer delivers the staccato verses, there are no embellishments around him, just the steady bass and the hard-snap snares. So when the tumbledown guitars come in a thrash, it spreads out over all the space the drums and bass have created. It’s only three and a half minutes, but it feels like one of the most epic tracks Thee Oh Sees have this side of “Warm Slime”. And the band is just getting started. “Ticklish Warrior” is a weightier, sludge-rock stomper. But it still resists the urge to stack up. Instead, the heavy distortion clears out when Dwyer plays the song’s catchiest riff, and the band glides along behind it. They shift back and forth between crashing noise and tight, sophisticated power pop.
Along with “Gelatinous Cube”, these are the only songs that clock in under the three-and-a-half-minute mark. In fact, four of the album’s five other songs run past five minutes. But rather than making the songs feel jammy, the band earns these spaces. “Jammed Entrance”, with the tongue-in-cheek title and all, feels loose and lets Dwyer bring his Damaged Bug fascination with keyboards to the middle of this track. It’s an interesting turn as the hooks and blippy keys sound familiar, but Thee Oh Sees achieve the band’s trademark propulsion without needing volume. Treated guitar does get caught up in the keys in the song’s second half, making for the album’s most self-indulgent moment, but Dwyer and company return to the song’s more basic charms before they bog the song down.
“Plastic Plant” shows just how powerful the band’s shift in focus can be. The opening hook is as bracing and infectious as anything the band has given us before, and drums and bass crash along with it. It’s as loud as the band can be—here or anywhere else—and when Dywer solos in the song’s second half, the solo seems spare, as if to high the drummers and bassist behind each note rather than the notes themselves. It’s the thumping rhythms that make the song stick.
With the combination of infectious hooks and propulsive rhythms, as well as the new sense of epic scope to these songs, Thee Oh Sees earn the album’s last two moments. “Crawl Out From the Fall Out” is a slow, narcotic eight minutes of music. Bowed bass rises and falls. The drums built a quiet, steady, even spare beat. Keys groan out into space. Dwyer’s vocals, drenched as ever in reverb, seem to melt as they hit the air. It’s a patient song, one that asks the listener to take a breath and hang with it. Mostly, it pays off. There are moments where there’s just one too many synths bleating out at once. But when the band keeps the parts clear, lets them each get murky on their own terms, the song seems to ripple ever outward. Closer “The Axis” is a slower build as well, but is more arena rock than space-pop experiment. Yet again, the band creates a wide-open canvas of sorts, and Dwyer’s slow-build vocal melodies and echoing guitars accentuate just how big, how borderless this band can sound, while still sounding thrilling and immediate.
With all the space, the stretching out, that Dwyer finally does pile on in the end—with a blistering solo that feels equal parts Nels Cline and Tom Verlaine—is inevitable and yes, maybe a bit easy, but still a resonant release. A Weird Exits and Dwyer’s new line-up mark maybe the project’s freshest turn since the beginnings of their In the Red era. These songs hit you straight-on, but then they wrap around you and never quite let go.
// Notes from the Road
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