[15 April 2008]
At the outset of “Block of Ice”, the first song on The Master’s Bedroom is Worth Spending a Night In, a sharp note of feedback echoes repeatedly for a few seconds before a flanger kicks in, pushing the noise to a logical extreme. It kind of sounds like the end of Radiohead’s “Karma Police”, which leaves you feeling like you know what to expect: an album of spacey alienation from yet another troupe of Radiohead wannabes. But then, something unexpected happens: the feedback cuts out and a grimy guitar kicks in, playing a simple, repetitive blues riff. Soon, a few snare hits chime in, as well as a bass, playing that same riff a few octaves lower. “I don’t want to be destroyed”, a high-pitched, double-tracked voice sings through a fuzzy haze, “I just want to be left on a block of ice”. So much for first impressions.
While the garage rock revival ship might have sailed a few years ago—back when bands like the White Stripes, the Hives and the Strokes served as indie rock’s ambassadors to the mainstream—the backwards-looking aesthetic still has its share of fans. After all, the White Stripes still sell plenty of records, the Hives still play to sold out crowds, and the Strokes still get fawned over in the pages of NME. So while garage rock might not currently have the hype-machine caché of, say, freak-folk, electro, or new-rave, there’s probably still enough demand to support a new garage rock band or two. Might Thee Oh Sees follow in the footsteps of other recent garage rock giants, despite the extra “e” in their name’s definite article? Don’t hold your breath.
While presentation and even gimmickry have always had a place in garage rock, the best bands have managed to balance style with substance. Take the White Stripes, for example. Their stated credo of using only two instruments, wearing only three colors, and using only equipment manufactured before a certain decade serves as a jumping-off point. The real game is seeing how much can be done within that set of constraints without subverting it. Thee Oh Sees, on the other hand, seem to have misplaced their priorities: they have the style thing down pat but can’t seem to figure out the rest. The result is a nebulous collection of songs that’s at best unobtrusive and at worst, tedious.
Take, for example, the second track, “Visit Colonel”. It opens, as many of the album’s songs do, with the sound of an amplifier being fiddled around with. Soon, we’ve got a beat going on the floor tom with some sleigh bells thrown in for good measure. Eventually, vocalist John Dwyer (ex-Coachwhips, Pink and Brown, OCS) enters the picture, sounding for all the world like he’s singing into a tin can (anyone familiar with the telephone mouthpiece vocals of Dwyer’s previous bands will immediately recognize the effect). I’ll admit, it’s not a bad sound for a vocal and gives the song an aged, timeless feel. However, on The Master’s Bedroom, the effect overpowers the vocal to the point that the lyrics are completely unintelligible. While similarly obscured vocals might work in a noisier act like Pink and Brown or Lightning Bolt, as used here, the effect is just downright annoying. If you thought that the vocal affectation on the first two Strokes albums was tiring, consider yourself lucky that you could at least make out what Julian Casablancas was saying.
The next song, “Grease 2” fares a little better. Its primitive, repetitive punk chords are easy enough to follow and the cymbal-happy chorus recalls Meg White’s propulsive drumming. Still, the song is brief, clocking in at just under three minutes, yet you still get the feeling that it hasn’t gone anywhere. Meanwhile, “Two Drummers Disappear” produces an impressively noisy racket, while using channel separation to give the song a more tactile feel. However, the vocals on “Drummers” echo so much that you have to wonder if Dwyer has a mouthful of marbles or if he’s just spitting out gibberish (take note guys: inventing your own fictional language is only endearing if you’re Sigur Rós).
It’s not all bad, however. The title track is a giddy, jangly pop romp, full of call-and-response vocals, classic rock ‘n’ roll melodies, and enough “Oohs” and “Aahs” to satisfy all but the most discriminating Beach Boys fans. “Grease” slows things down to a crawl, creating a grubby sludge of guitars that actually complements the AM radio vocals quite well. And “Quadrospazzed” recalls the Stooges at their most experimental—not to mention Dwyer’s previous work under the OCS moniker.
Throughout The Master’s Bedroom is Worth Spending a Night In, one gets the feeling that Thee Oh Sees are reaching for some kind of grimy psychedelia, a mood that lies somewhere between the wooziness of Beach House and the tribal experimentation of Animal Collective. And considering that Thee Oh Sees call San Francisco home, you can’t blame them for trying to channel the musical ghosts that defined that city’s youth culture 40 years ago. However, underneath all of the atmospherics and effects, Thee Oh Sees actually play it pretty straight, sticking mostly to simplistic, predictable song structures. And that’s what prevents the songs on The Master’s Bedroom from ever taking hold—the band’s undue focus on ephemera leaves very little to grasp. Regardless of how well dressed the master’s bedroom might be, it’s still not worth spending a night in.