You can do anything in the garage. Some things are more fun than others. Changing the oil? Not fun. Cooking lasagna? Not practical. Building computers? It’s been done. Loud simple rock? Yeah, that’s fun. Whatever garage Thee Oh Sees emerged from, the aroma still lingers. The stains are gone. They’re (probably) hygienic folks after all. What remains? A garage-based formula that still works. Tweak the parameters from album to album and, each time, you get a different version of the formula. That’s not a bad thing, not at all.
OK, here’s the basic formula taken from ISO 15707:
- chugging buzzing humming fuzzy guitars
- a medium fast pulsing rhythm
- reverb, echo, delay, whatever it takes to recreate a large empty space full of sound
- fragments of chirpy organ
- a clipped male vocal, perfectly in line with the rhythm
- a female vocal that floats, yes, but right in the middle of the mix, not front, not back, in the middle
- yelps used as punctuation
Basically, it’s what the B-52s would sound like when crossed with a chainsaw. It works, even as a formula, because, with each song, they vary the amount/emphasis of each feature, adding and subtracting as required. It’s a big basic Lego set, with a psychedelic expansion pack (the version found at 1537).
Ordinarily, you wouldn’t need such a lengthy intro to their newest album, Floating Coffin, but, ordinarily, I wouldn’t be the one writing about it. Ordinarily, Thee Oh Sees would be sitting on my maybe list, for consideration during a slow music month. That changed when I read the enthusiastic, giddy, ecstatic review over at Tulip Frenzy. Best since the Beatles? I wouldn’t say that, but really freaking good? Yup, that fits.
Compared to their recent releases, it’s harsher, filling the space with grit and fuzz more than reverb. From song to song, the pattern resembles a less dichotomous version of Les Breastfeeders where the male/female vocals correspond to harsher/milder songs. Apparently, the songwriting for the album changed from a predominantly one-man effort, that of lead singer John Dwyer, to a more collaborative process. The results is an album with definite coherence, but stretching to cover more ground than before. The mood or ambience shifts throughout from tight twitchy tunes to ponderous, but good, approximations of psychedelica.
The title track is, in my opinion, the best, not that much better than the rest of the album, but better than almost anything else out there. The guitar, back a little in the mix, is tighter and more spastic, always 10 seconds from exploding. Singer/keyboardist Brigid Dawson alternates between wind-like vocal and her bouncy keyboard riffs. Elsewhere, lead singer John Dwyer merges his falsetto with Dawson in “No Spell” which is a nice semi-psychedelic garage jam over the top of a simple bassline almost as effective as in Radiohead’s “National Anthem”. The entire rhythm section gets their Primus twitch on to drive “Maze Fancier”, pushing even the twitchy guitar parts to a fast strobing. If I hadn’t already known otherwise, I would have sworn Ty Segall played a major role in “Tunnel Time” with its added brashness.
The formula gets dropped with excellent effect. In one the videos from the album for the song “Minotaur”, you see how hard it must be to be a workaday mythical creature as the music, the soundtrack really, plods playfully with a string section as an anchor.
As a special bonus, I’m happy to offer some listening advice. The first three and last three songs are best listened to through my headphones, while the middle section is best in my car. Your listening will require a little planning. I’ve got three other seats in the car, so reservations may be required. As for the headphones, you can use them when I’m asleep or in meetings which are usually different times. Just know that I care about your listening experience. I really do.