[17 September 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
John Dwyer’s San Francisco based group Thee Oh Sees (a play on the term Orange County) is prolific to say the least. Putrifiers II, the band’s latest release, is its 14th since its formation in 1997, if you count records under former band names such as OCS and the OhSees. And that’s not counting EPs, seven-inches, and compilations. So, yes, Dwyer and company have a lot of ideas, if not outright songs. However, Thee Oh Sees have been relatively quiet this year, seeing that Putrifiers II is the first album to sprout from the band within the first nine months of 2012. Maybe the relatively long lag time, for this group meant, at least, that they spent a great deal of their waking hours honing their songs to a relative degree. Well, if so, Putrifiers II is generally the proof: Aside from the odd weird blip here and there, the record is choc-a-bloc with mind altering psychedelic gems that recall the best output of the ‘60s while retaining a bit of a signature sound. And though things don’t quite get too far out there, Putrifiers II is definitely in the weird category: How else could you describe an album that boasts a lyric such as “Remember a day when fat kids got high”?
What Putrifiers II ultimately is, though, is a walk down nostalgia lane, roping in elements of genres from the beginnings of rock and roll. Heck, the song “Will We Be Scared?” is even the kind of thing you’d hear a good six decades ago with its walking bass line and R&B-like sound. But that isn’t the only throwback to be found on the disc. Closer “Wicked Park” is a slice of ‘60s baroque pop with its strings and acoustic guitars. “Goodnight Baby” and “Hang a Picture” has that gummy bear retro-psychedelic pop feel that the Apples in Stereo mined very early in their career. And, of course, first single “Lupine Dominus” is garnering a great deal of attention in the blogosphere for its similarities to ‘70s Krautrock, which would also be ignoring the fact that the song’s bassline is ripped straight from the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’”.
All in all, Putrifiers II (and there is no Putrifiers I in the band’s discography – it was supposedly scrapped after the band failed to fuse Celine Dion, free jazz and showtunes) is a big sopping love letter to the past, and it usually succeeds quite admirably. It’s as though Dwyer and company spent a great deal of time rifling through albums in their record collection, and then tried to replace those sounds with a slight off-kilter sensibility. The songs tend to have hooky hooks, and ride a certain groove – though sometimes Thee Oh Sees are guilty of trying to milk a good thing perhaps a bit too much. After all, the title track runs more than six minutes long and “Will We Be Scared?” is in the five-and-a-half minute territory. However, when the band is on stun, they’re really quite stunning. Perhaps the most rifftastic track to be found on the entire contents of Putrifiers II is none other than opening song “Wax Face”, which is played on guitars at warp speed and locks itself into a fantastic rhythm that is smooth, throttling itself into hyper drive with its outbound sense of propulsion.
Despite the fact that some of the songs might be a smidge too long, Putrifiers II does kind of trip over its own two feet on the third and fourth tracks to a degree: “So Nice” is a dirge of a piece, one with a careening viola, and has a bit of a sea shanty feel that’s a bit too oddball for the sake of being so, notwithstanding the fact that its languid pace seems a bit out of sorts with the rest of the material. Follow-up “Cloud #1” is nearly two minutes of droning keyboards that will either make your ears bleed or your teeth ache. It, too, seems a bit of a baffler in its inclusion, considering the remainder of the album offers some very sweet melodies and delightful songs. However, the record rights itself after that with the awesome “bah bah ba ba bahs” of “Flood’s New Light” that you can sing along to. Overall, Putrifiers II might be a little too much of a record that tries to fuse too many ideas together, and feels more like a random collection of songs as opposed to a seamless whole. However, it is a toe-tapping and inspiring disc with an acute sense of the best elements of musical styles plucked from the pop past.
When it works, Putrifiers II is a remarkably focused record that lays thick on hummable melodies while retaining a hint of the weird. When it doesn’t, and that isn’t too often, thankfully, Putrifiers II comes off as being a tad bit on the pretentious side. However, the disc is a worthy addition to Thee Oh Sees’ growing canon, and an agreeable starting point for those who want to hear the band’s woolly take on psychedelic sounds infused with a dollop of pop. Putrifiers II may not be perfect, but it is ultimately far, far from being putrid. If you’re a scholar of early rock, this is a record and a band that is quite worthy of checking out. And, if you find this sort of thing agreeable, there’s another 13 albums to go and discover. Not counting EPs, singles and compilations, of course. Happy diving.