A Cheater’s Guide to Thee Oh Sees
Thee Oh Sees

Thee Oh Sees photo courtesy of theeohsees.com

With all due respect to fellow San Franciscan psych-pushers Ty Segall and the Fresh & Onlys, there’s a pretty good reason why Thee Oh Sees inspire more rapt fan devotion than any of their peers. They’ve always been a little weirder and a little more art-damaged. Their songs have always been a little more exploratory and more beholden to the “psychedelic” descriptors, making them the perfect band to take hallucinogenic drugs to. And let’s not forget they’re easily one of the greatest live acts in America right now.

In the short four years and change since Thee Oh Sees transmogrified from frontman John Dwyer’s weirdo-folk solo/side project to arguably the most beloved group of musicians in the Bay Area’s exhaustively populated garage-rock scene, the quartet has amassed a great deal of material, releasing six full-length records and over a dozen EPs, singles, live albums, and rarities compilations. Such a massive treasure trove would be intimidating to sift through on one’s own, which is why we’re here. There’s nothing wrong with having a cheat sheet sometimes. While you’re waiting for their 14th(!) record Putrifiers II (out tomorrow, 9/11, on In the Red), find some different ways into their discography, below:

Where to Start if You’re Allergic to Low-Fidelity Recordings

The current lineup of Thee Oh Sees has been bookended by two of its cleanest-sounding studio efforts. 2008’s The Master’s Bedroom Is Worth Spending a Night In naturally houses the type of clanging, primitive garage-rock perfect for being shoved around a dank basement venue with tagged walls and perpetually beer-stained floors. Along with the pulsating thump of “Grease 2” and the heaviness of its sequel, “Grease,“ it’s no surprise Master’s Bedroom is the source of many of the fan-favorite live staples such as “Block of Ice” and “Quadrospazzed.” The just-released Putrifiers II sprinkles barnburners among pop numbers full of bleating, droning violins (“So Nice”), cracked doo-wop (“We Will Be Scared”), and even a gorgeous acoustic ballad (“Wicked Park”). Both records show the band are great at sneaking high-minded conceits into a genre that openly celebrates the caveman stomp: The lead single of Putrifiers is a song whose title is a Latin translation of “Master Wolf,” and Master’s Bedroom’s best tune (“Maria Stacks”) is a nod in the direction of San Francisco artist Maria Forde.

Where to Start if You Enjoy Listening to Really Long Songs in Their Entirety

On vinyl, the opening/title-track of 2010’s Warm Slime takes up the entire first side of the album. Even though it’s about four minutes longer in length, not even the Velvet Underground’s immortal “Sister Ray”– certainly one of the song‘s spiritual predecessors — can claim that feat. With the pacing of a boxing match eventually called by decision, “Warm Slime” is full of peaks and valleys, quiet-loud dynamics, and James-Brown-jumping-out-of-his-cape moments. At 3:38, the triumphant “I Was Denied” is Side Two’s longest track, leading off a string of the kind of Nuggets-sized pop tunes they’ve already proved they’re exceptional at making.

Where to Start if You Want to Hear the Best Record First

From top to bottom, 2009’s Help is the most addictive and enjoyable album in Thee Oh Sees’ catalog because it’s a refinement of everything the band does well as a unit. Petey Dammit — who plays a six-string guitar adjusted to sound like a bass — and drummer Mike Shoun form the steady anchor that is the rhythm section, while keyboardist Brigid Dawson acts more as a co-singer than a backup; her measured soprano steady and full as Dwyer’s vocal inches up toward falsettos and lets out shrieking howls and Tourette-like whoops. And though Help has more song-like songs than any other Oh Sees record, Dwyer is still able to go off on wild tangents while playing guitar, his fingers darting all across the fretboard and playing blaring open chords to break the monotony. It also is the home of more stage staples than any other of their albums: Of the ten Oh Sees shows your friendly contributor has attended, Help opener “Enemy Destruct” was played at eight of them.

Where to Start if You Just Want to Hear Some Groovy Tunes, Maaan

Though 2009’s Dog Poison, like all Oh Sees LPs, is solid all-around, its most notable songs are freewheeling ’70s psych numbers “The Fizz” and “I Can’t Pay You to Disappear” and the eerily quiet (at least by Oh Sees standards) “Head of State.” The band’s prolificacy is a safeguard against lackluster material through avenues many bands take for granted, like split singles and EPs. Last year’s split 12” with Australian post-punks Total Control has a killer live version of Dog Poison’s “Dead Energy,” while their 2009 split 7” with Ty Segall finds them nailing a blitzkrieg cover of Segall’s “The Drag,” while on the flipside, he turns in a gloriously sloppy one-man-band version of “Maria Stacks.” Also, out of the twenty-or-so songs that could have feasibly made our Hive Five on Breaking Bad’s greatest musical moments, the snubbing of Oh Sees 2009 single “Tidal Wave” [WARNING: Season 4 spoiler alert just ahead!] — the tune that soundtracked Gus Fring’s artful mass-poisoning of Don Eladio’s pool party — was the most egregious.

Where to Start if You Want to Get Weird

Castlemania, the first of two Oh Sees albums released in 2011, became an instant classic in the band’s pantheon by virtue of being its biggest red herring. Essentially a John Dwyer solo album recorded before being forced out by ever-rising San Francisco rents, what came out of the Oh Sees leader’s apartment was a refreshingly bizarre psychedelic masterpiece — featuring a few close friends (including Segall and Heidi Alexander of dramatically undervalued trio the Sandwitches), a self-arranged-and-played woodwind section, and Dwyer singing like a cartoon monster with one hell of a stomach ache. By capturing both some of the ugliest moments he’s ever recorded to tape (“Corrupted Coffin,” “AA Warm Breeze”) with the prettiest (instrumental “The Horse Was Lost,” a sublime cover of West Coast Experimental Pop Band’s “I Won’t Hurt You”), Castlemania finds Dwyer fiercely rejecting caution and economy and going after something far more ambitious. The album is a stunning, bewildering reminder that some artists aim way too far and still don’t miss.

 

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