I’ve had the pleasure of studying in Madrid this year, and I am reminded of something that happened a few weeks ago. Trickling out of the venue, emboldened by two hours of feel-good carnage as showcased by a handful of Spain’s best garage-punk outfits, we were greeted by Madrid’s 1am balmy, metropolitan excitement as we spilled into the crowds which would take us to the next bar. A friend got talking to a member of a prominent local band, who had news that Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall were coming to town over the summer. There were phone calls and delighted drunken yelps and embraces as the (yet to be confirmed) rumours rippled backwards down the street.
For those new to Thee Oh Sees, one thing has to be made clear: there are legions of followers across the world’s continents; denim-clad urban dwellers by day, beer-soaked crowd surfers by night, and (Thee Oh Sees’ frontman) John Dwyer is their king. (Dwyer’s close friend,Ty Segall, is perhaps the only other underground-rock monarch who can challenge his throne.)
Garage-rock is so often confronted with a trade-off between originality and authenticity, but Thee Oh Sees, as fully canonised members of its hall of fame, are never troubled by the latter; over the years their undoubted loyalty to the genre’s structure and thumping, fuzzed-out riffs has been inexhaustible and unstoppable, which, incidentally, makes for frenzied, thrilling live shows. Within that structure, however, they have been free to experiment, each album in their prolific and uncountable discography more varied than the last. Now they are back with ‘Drop’
‘Penetrating Eye’, the opening track, gives the listener a hint of said variation, opening with the ponderings of electronic keyboard sounds, rare but not unchartered territory for Thee Oh Sees, until one of Dwyer’s familiar jittering bluesy riff takes hold of the track and doesn’t let go. Extra-terrestrial, psychedelic sounds swirl throughout and within 3 minutes of the album’s opener we are transported to planet Dwyer.
As a fan of Dwyer’s work as a skull-rattling noise terrorist with Coachwhips, his now defunct side project which is resuscitated every now and then to bring wreckage to any special occasion (this year it was SXSW), I find him at his most exhilarating and enjoyable when his songs clock in at under the 3 minute mark and include the kind of rawness and energy he has brought to parts of Thee Oh Sees back-catalogue. Regardless of this, ‘Encrypted Bounce’, at 5:42, is probably my favourite track on the album. At the announcement of ‘Drop’, there were talks, as there so often are, of an indefinite hiatus, but it’s clear that Dwyer and co. had some serious groove to get off their collective chest before they laid Thee Oh Sees to rest. The vocals set off the track’s throbbing rhythm, whilst the guitars itch at the edges of Dwyer’s falsetto delivery, breaking out into sweet licks when reigned-in by the tight rhythm section and into more psychedelic rambles when they are afforded the space, and during the 5 minutes 42 seconds there is space aplenty, enough for horns, even. Simple and effective 60’s rock and roll riffery carries the track home, no matter much you don’t want it to end.
‘Savage Victory’ passes without much event; notions of a sporadic kind of chaos feel safe and withdrawn and serve as a reminder of what the album isn’t; it doesn’t rock as heavily as 2013’s ‘Floating Coffin’, and here that feels like a disadvantage whereas elsewhere on the album it works out in Thee Oh Sees’ favour. ‘Put Some Reverb on My Brother’, for example, is an easier, brighter listen thanks in no small part to collaborator (and garage-rock prince) Mikal Cronin’s rhythmic acoustic guitar contributions and another welcome inclusion of saxophones. The excellent ‘Drop’ follows, flickering with a poppy-sheen, it’s light on its feet and sounds like Thee Oh See’s take on 90’s college-rock as does the chorus of ‘Camera’, suddenly unburdened by the weight of its chugging riff.
‘The King’s Noise’ indulges in a very Beatles-esque psychedelia but along with ‘Transparent Noise’, sounds like an album winding down early, or at least, represents a shift in tone towards the gentle and nostalgic, which is fully realised in the final song, ‘The Lens’, which does sounds like a sincere, if not final, goodbye. If nothing else, ‘The Lens’, is testament to the variety of the album’s soundscape, but it’s also as tender and beautiful a song as you are likely to hear from a John Dwyer project, not to mention its high production values – perhaps horns and strings are the only way for these garage-rock heroes to sign off, for now…
Now let’s all take a second to think of those whose summers ride on an appearance by Thee Oh Sees in their city or country.
Drop was released on the 19th April (Record Store Day) on Castle Face Records and Thee Oh Sees appear alongside loads of other great acts at Jabberwocky, to be held on the 15th and 16th August in London.