Album Review: Thee Oh Sees – Putrifiers II

[In The Red; 2012]

John Dwyer and his fellow garage rockers in Thee Oh Sees are nothing if not dedicated. Throughout their career, they’ve burned through the genre with an almost Stooges-like fury. They’ve seemed far less concerned with overdubs and layers of irrelevant noise than with their own myopic goal of perfecting the immaculate brand of fuzzy Nuggets-inspired rock that fans have come to expect from them. Though on their last few records, the band has extended their reach and tried to incorporate various aspects of psychedelia, indie rock, and classic rock n’ roll. Their last release, 2011’s The Dream/Carrion Crawler, was a testament to the bands’ ability to take the shaggy rock common to the genre and, by giving them the room to expand and contort in wild and unexpectedly complex ways, to reconstruct them to further their own sense of restless innovation. Similar in execution to their garage rock antecedents The Count Five or The Sonics, the band knows exactly how and where each piece fits within the context of their songs.  It’s amazing how precise these songs sound; even more so when you realize that part of the appeal of garage rock, even in its infancy, came from the fact that many of those seminal artists were not necessarily technically proficient but a sense of musical discovery and trial and error lent those songs a feral attitude that predated punk by decades. And while Thee Oh Sees can’t be said to be lazy or anything other than consummate musicians, they take that mantle and proudly carry it for their own.

On their latest album of fuzzbox melodies, the suitably decayed Putrifiers II, the band furthers this idea of aural assimilation towards all forms of music, absorbing them into their own brand of inimitable garage rock. But in a year when we’ve already had strong records released in the genre, do we really need or want another entry so late in the year? Granted, Thee Oh Sees have been pandering their garage wares for longer than some of their peers, but how many of these genre albums do we really need in a given year? If we’re to answer that question by the standards set forth on Putrifiers II, then I’d say as many as we can get our hands on.

With its lead surf guitar and wild man yelps, opening track “Wax Face” quickly establishes the musical template that they’ll be using before busting it all to hell later on. With enough distortion and fuzz surrounding Dwyer’s vocals to almost completely engulf the song, the band subtly and meticulously weaves each element together and sets the album on a head-on collision with its own influences.  For every song that steps off the trail in regards to its own construction—the fuzztone falsetto-led “Hang A Picture” or “So Nice,” with its thumping toms and atonal cello streaks—the band manages to ground themselves with the late 50’s doe-eyed lovers pop of “Will We Be Scared” and “Goodnight Baby,” though with more echo and tremulous guitar than the Chordettes or Johnny Mathis ever imagined.

The band dips into broad strokes of psych-rock on the Red Krayola-influenced noise collage of “Cloud #1” and even manages to sneak in a song (“Lupine Dominus”) that bears more than a casual resemblance to “96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians.  The album ends with the Kinks homage “Wicker Park,” with flute and fey vocals worthy of a slot on Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire). If the band can be faulted for anything, it’s pushing the concept of the genre to its breaking point and sometimes beyond. The noise and lo-fi approach, while authentic, doesn’t always work in the bands’ favor. But this is a garage rock album, so it can be somewhat forgiven for leaning towards its base.

Putrifiers II feels self-assured and confidently experimental in a way similar in nature to their last few records. In fact, the album almost trips over its own feet trying to sneak in every stray idea and musically tangential thought that Dwyer and the band seem to have running their collective consciousness. And far from feeling overstuffed or crammed full of underdeveloped ideas, the album revels creatively in this new found sense of freedom. Instead of settling down as they have matured, the band has discovered that you’re only as young as you sound. After running through six albums, you’d think their ability to find something substantive in the genre would be waning but as evidenced by this record, they’re still surging full-speed, tearing through the genre like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

By incorporating various aspects of garage rock — the echo-laden vocals, tremolo overkill, borderline fidelity — and carefully threading them together with non-canonical garage rock elements such as atonal strings, buzzing psychedelic ephemera and atypical drum beats, the band has crafted an album of striking intensity and half-remembered musical memories. And just to drive home that last point, the guitar line in “Flood’s New Light” comes dangerously close to approximating the well-known progression from The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” It’s borderline plagiarism but the band seems to be cribbing with a wink and nod to its influences and not running a blatant con on the listener, and so in this context, the band does come out relatively clean. After all, garage rock hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years. Even the best artists working in the genre recently — Ty Segall, Royal Headache, Thee Oh Sees themselves — have to pull from what they know, and in this case, it’s the band’s personal history with the genre.

On this record, Thee Oh Sees have subtly changed their approach to the genre. It shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a more pop-oriented direction, though there is ample evidence to substantiate that claim, but the band merely seems to be allowing for the prospect that garage rock can be more than just a simple imitation of bands like The Monks or The Seeds. The static and noise that permeates “Cloud #1” and the strings that lace through the driving beat of “So Nice” give the listener a good idea of the disparate musical variations that they’ve worked so hard to seamlessly integrate into their music. Regardless if this is just a momentary blip on their creative radar, or if it’s indicative of a continual, more substantial, shift in their sound and execution, Putrifiers II stands as the moment in the bands discography where they break free of any and all restrictions and leave the door wide open for any subsequent releases. By setting the standard so high though, they’ve placed a good deal of weighted expectation on the shoulders of their next album. But if this record is any indication, I don’t think we’ve got much to worry about. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go find a copy of Black Monk Time and hear where this all began.