On their 15th album, Thee Oh Sees remind us that garage rock isn't the narrow sound we make it out to be.
John Dwyer and his project, Thee Oh Sees, has been wonderfully impossible to pin down over 15 albums. There have always been different experiments with pop-folk and psychedelia and all kinds of fuzzy, eccentric noise play. But with last year's Putrifiers II, the band found a concise mix of all its wide sounds. The fuzz was made all the fuzzier by giving it just a touch more polish, a touch more shape. It scraped the barnacles – great though they were – of the band's music and exposed the bittersweet melodies underneath.
Floating Coffin both extends and distorts that progression. It's another tense, potent dose of rocking jangle, but it's also darker than its predecessor and more interested in tonal and mood shifts mid-song. Opener "I Came from the Mountain", though, doesn't make this evident right up front. That song, a blistering rock tune busting with perfect riffs, is steadfast in its breakneck pace. It vacillates between a guitar hook, a nice organ rundown, and verses, circling through this progression over and over again, running on way longer than you think. But this testing of the limits of repetition – which, oddly enough, recalls mid-'60s Dylan in its brilliant stubbornness – is a fascinating Trojan horse, an impossibly catchy opener that also mesmerizes, only to drop you into the shadowy skronk of "Toe Cutter - Thumb Buster", which stretches the hooks out to classic-rock, arena-size, pitting them against the ethereal vocals of Brigid Dawson.
The punk murk of the title track that follows is a quick and dirty take, but also your last real chance to catch your breath. The middle of the record is anchored by "No Spell" and "Strawberries 1 +2". These are the two most ambitious songs on the record, but also the most melodically strong oddly enough. "No Spell" is honeyed and propulsive, Dwyer and Dawson deliver gossamer vocal harmonies over a pulsing bass line. It's not a song that changes pace or direction so much as it muddles its composition in interesting ways. The guitars melt and run together with keys and even the vocals in between quiet choruses, so the eruption of sound is all-encompassing, the kind of mess you're likely to sift through and – midway through – find there's an order to it. "Strawberries 1+2", as you may tell by the title, is a more two-faced affair. It starts with fuzzed-out, edgy blues-rock, but it's when it shifts halfway through that we see the true limits – or lack there of – the band's potential. It's a space-rock freak-out worthy of Pink Floyd comparisons, but more interested in interplay between sounds and meshing melody with space than it is in self-indulgent jamming. It's a perfect space for Dawson's voice, doubled here to drive home its haunting allure. She becomes some sort of garage-rock mystic, telling us things like "we are future" but leaving us to simply feel those lines and worry about what they might mean later. They're a dim light for a path rather than a map to a destination.
It's interesting to note the thematic concerns here – of violence, darkness, some link between these things (and bloodshed) and a dangerous kind of being lost – but they also but up against a pretty pure, unnecessary to fully define rock and roll bliss. It's also tricky to figure all this out since the vocals aren't clear and, when they are, the lyrics don't exactly specify their intentions. We do have a "Minotaur" and a man lost in a maze, and these help frame songs, but only so much.
The more interesting thing about Floating Coffin, though, might be how its examination of genre is revelatory, almost political. They're a band inextricably tied to terms like garage rock (see above), and yet the more boilerplate garage rock moments seem the least bracing. This is perhaps because, like the best lo-fi bands for example, what Dwyer and company do is remind us that garage rock isn't the narrow sound we make it out to be, that it's more a convenient identifier than a real-world musical sound. What we get is the fury and excitement of creating something in secret, away from the living (the house ostensibly attached to the garage), something both underground and very much a part of terra firma. Thee Oh Sees, in short, remind us that garage rock – or lo-fi or psych-pop or whatever other name you pin on them – will inevitably fall short in describing the music. But what it does tell us about is the hunger in this sound, the absolute necessity to create a feel in all of these songs. But even if Dwyer and company are hungry, this album shows they're not interested in scraps. These songs take big bites, bites that take some chewing – for player and listener – to get through them, to find the good stuff in them we need.