If you’ve ever seen Thee Oh Sees live, you have seen some shit. John Dwyer’s band of psych-garage hooligans has an ever-revolving lineup, but whoever might be playing alongside him, they’ve got one of the most dependably fired-up shows in all of indie rock. Dwyer — splattered with tattoos, frequently shirtless, his guitar hiked up uncomfortably high on his chest — plays hammerhead guitar hero, his fuzzed-up riffs transitioning into spiraling solos while your mind races to keep up. Meanwhile, his band keeps him anchored with an unrelenting low-end pummel. I’ve never known them to dawdle over half-baked stage patter or to tune up instruments between songs or to display anything even loosely resembling pretension. Instead, their shows are rave-ups, in the Yardbirds sense of the word — drunken, happy dance-parties set to dizzy, fun battering-ram guitar rock. But while Thee Oh Sees keep cranking out new music — dropping an album, breaking up, getting back together, and then dropping another album in the time that most bands are still finishing up their touring cycle behind a single LP — they generally don’t capture that sense of giddy fun on record. Dwyer’s mind is too restless, and he likes to play around with starry-eyed, experimental psychedelia that’s considerably less fun when heard at home and not in the company of sweaty strangers. But the new album, A Weird Exits — and no, that title doesn’t look right, but just go with it — might be the moment where they’ve figured it out.
I can’t really speak to whether A Weird Exits is the best Oh Sees record; through different versions of the band, Dwyer has released a whole pile of music. (If you include the stuff Dwyer was recording as OCS as far back as 2003, A Weird Exits is the 17th Oh Sees studio album.) But it’s the one, at least among the albums I’ve heard, that I find to be the most viscerally, immediately gratifying. Dwyer’s been in transition, generally speaking, for a few albums now. He’s broken up and reassembled the band, and he’s moved his base of operations from San Francisco — where, a few years ago, his band formed the bedrock of a thriving local garage-rock scene — to Los Angeles. With A Weird Exits, he’s got what amounts to an all-new lineup playing behind him. But they don’t sound new. Instead, they sound absolutely locked-in.
Through most of his previous albums, Dwyer has been playing with the keyboardist and singer Brigid Dawson; she’s been the closest thing to a regular Oh Sees bandmate that he’s had, and her sly melodies and taunting organ riffs have been crucial to the band’s sense of melody and playfulness. Or that’s what I thought, anyway. He’s made A Weird Exits without her keyboards (though she does sing backing vocals on the album), and when keyboards do appear — which is fairly often — he’s the one playing them. And behind him, he’s got one bassist and two drummers. I love bands with two drummers. Bands are almost always better with two drummers; word to Black Eyes, Kylesa, and Kamasi Washington’s touring band. Together, that triple-headed rhythm section keeps things rocketing along. Dwyer rarely has time to indulge his most far-out impulses. Instead, it’s like he’s dancing on top of a thundering, stampeding herd of elephants. His guitars dodge and weave and jab, but they never slow down. Meanwhile, his nagging-elf falsetto vocals don’t dominate the songs. They just become part of the attack.
The attack here isn’t some trudging wrecking-ball riff-onslaught. Instead, as loud and heavy as it can get, it’s fast and fleet and agile. This is much less an album about songs, much more one about groove. And for most of the album’s length, it maintains that groove. The songs are there, and they can sound pretty great when heard in isolation. But the album isn’t about that. It’s about finding all these different variations on the same needling rhythm, about riding the beat wherever it goes. This is something I don’t see that often in guitar-rock; it’s more the province of something like a DC go-go band. (Go-go bands, not coincidentally, tend to have more than one drummer, too.) There’s a song on the album called “Ticklish Warrior,” and it’s a great turn of phrase to describe what Thee Oh Sees are doing here. This is music with a punch to it, but there’s also an unpredictable joy, the sort of thing you get when musicians are pushing each other and seeing where their sound can go.
And when the groove finally breaks, near the end of the album, something even more remarkable happens. I can’t say that “Crawl Out From The Fall Out,” the gorgeous eight-minute penultimate track here, is the best Oh Sees song; again, there are way too many Oh Sees songs to say anything like that with any authority. But I can definitely say that it’s the best Oh Sees song I’ve ever heard. After six tracks of pure roiling firepower, it’s the moment where the band slows down and allows melody to creep in. Dwyer stays away from his guitar and instead plays these big, oceanic keyboard riffs, his instrument almost sounding like a cello. And suddenly, Thee Oh Sees transform from sweaty rock goblins into astral mystics. It’s quite a trick, and the next song, the similarly long “The Axis,” does similar things, albeit not quite as well. It’s the first time I’ve heard Dwyer completely nail his balance between energy and experimentation on record, where the two help each other rather than get in each other’s way.
A band like Thee Oh Sees, who dependably crank out at least one new album every year, can be an intimidating thing, especially for a newcomer. There is a lot in that discography, and there’s no clear consensus on where to jump in. Until now, your best bet has just been to go see them live and lose your mind. And that’s probably still the best entry point. But now they finally have an album that you point to and say, “This. This is the one.” At least until the next one. I don’t know how long Dwyer will keep this incarnation of the band intact, but it seems possible that, 17 albums into their existence, Thee Oh Sees are just hitting their stride.
A Weird Exits is out 8/12 on Castle Face.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Rae Sremmurd’s party-rap encore SremmLife 2.
• Horseback’s electro-prog doom metal Americana head-trip Dead Ringers.
• Katie Dey’s blippy, synthy, psychedelic Flood Network.
• Of Montreal’s glammy gender consideration Innocence Reaches.
• JEFF The Brotherhood’s psych-rock fuzzbomb Zone.
• Atmosphere’s grown, introspective rap opus Fishing Blues.
• PartyNextDoor’s OVO brand extension PartyNextDoor 3.
• Broken Social Scene mainstay Brendan Canning’s solo LP Home Wrecking Years.
• Kindling’s scuzzy shoegazer Everywhere Else.
• The National/Menomena side project Pfarmers’ Our Puram.
• The Moles’ psych-rock comeback Tonight’s Music.
• Opposite Sex’s wry punker Hamlet.
• Mizmor’s gloomy doom metaller Yodh.
• Holiday Mountain’s electro-popper SHIA.
• Omar Rodríguez-López’s latest solo-album installment Blind Worms Pious Swine.
• The Orchid Tapes compilation Radiating Light: Orchid Tapes & Friends.
• The Range’s Superimpose (Music From The Documentary).