[4 December 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
John Dwyer is always busy with his band Thee Oh Sees. They’ve been cranking out an increasingly excellent bunch of full-length records, culminating in this year’s fantastic album, Floating Coffin. But even as the band’s records find more focus and drive over time, Dwyer and company have stopped cranking out singles and split-discs and EPs and flexidiscs and whatever other kind of recordings you can think of. In these places, the experimentations in style, in structure, and in tones haven’t changed much over time. Or, rather, they haven’t stopped changing. These recordings outside of proper albums have let the band stretch its legs into more eccentric territory, and Singles Collection, Vol. 3 proves yet again that the results are consistent in their quality, even if they are inconsistent in just about every other way.
The set provides alternate routes in various guises. Some are variations on tracks we’ve heard on records. The skronky keyboards of “Girls Who Smile” has a gauzy second-half that would become “I Came from the Mountain” on Floating Coffin. The set also closes with a blown-out live version of “Block of Ice” and (on CD only) a live take that combines Help‘s “Destroyed Fortress” with an epic breakdown version of Floating Coffin‘s “No Spell”. These takes reimagine songs we already know, but also show the fluid nature of Thee Oh Sees’ sound. Even putting something to tape or bringing it to a stage can’t stop it from shifting around some.
Other moments here follow more closely the airtight psych-rock energy the band cultivates on its albums and uses it to create new and excellently catchy tunes. High-register vocal rundowns in the chorus elevate the already great jangle rock of “Always Flying”, while “Devil Again” sears with a bluesy fury, even as it bounces along playfully. Elsewhere “Ugly Man” slows down the formula and spaces it out, crafting an overcast version of the band’s usually bright tones. Meanwhile, “Crushed Glass” scuffs it up with a hyper-fuzzed bass and treated vocals. It’s a more feral take than most of these, but it also delivers unforgettable hooks as it snarls along.
There are more out-there attempts here, and the playfulness of some of these takes is charming. Some of them, however, end up being experimental seeds that don’t yield quite as much fruit as they could. “Burning Spear” ramps up the overdrive and borrows on the kind of tremolo sounds Modest Mouse trademarks, but while this is a scrappier version of that, it spins its wheels in places instead of charging forward. Similarly, “FBI2” has a Waits-ian circus quality to it, and it hear Dwyer howl over churning drums is great, but the songs never real goes anywhere with its aesthetic. The curious thing about these moments, though they are far from bad, are that they end up being the weirdest yet the least distinct moments for the band. In other words, it’s not that they don’t sound like themselves, since one of the band’s strengths is its protean approach to garage rock, but rather that they sound like too much like others when they drift to the fringe.
And yet these are merely moments that are good and not great, strange but not as deeply cutting as the eccentric moments on their full albums. Vol. 3 operates as parts of its own long-term pattern, of course, since it follows two other volumes of collected singles. And, like the proper albums, these collections seem to get better each time around. Vol. 3 is the best of these singles collections yet, with some downright gems and curious if imperfect steps into the unknown. Most importantly, it shows that Dwyer and Thee Oh Sees are far from settling into a groove, even as the band seems to be more locked in than ever.