If you are not familiar with Thee Oh Sees and don’t feel like reading an account of their history, let me make this short and sweet: They are a psychedelic garage band from San Francisco who since their formation in 1997, have released eight albums (over 40 if you count EPs, 7inch, splits, live albums, as well as taking in releases under previous band names). The end. With so much material under their belts, you would think they would be too exhausted to tour, much less record yet another album in less than year out from their previous release. To make this even more interesting, in 2013 they claimed they were taking an extended break. Since that announcement, they have toured constantly, released an LP and getting ready to release yet another, Mutilator Defeated At Last. Where do they get their energy?
It seems like Thee Oh Sees are in a race with Guided By Voices to see who can have more lineup changes and/or consistently release music. In fact, I think they have released more content during their supposed hiatus than some of my favorite bands have in their respective careers. With that said, there is lesson in that in which I think Guided By Voices could teach these guys: quantity doesn’t always mean quality.
The album opener, “Web” not only sums up the entire album rather nicely but maybe every single thing Thee Oh Sees are about: buzzy guitar, fuzzy bass, wispy staccato vocals, and early 60’s surf meets mid 60’s psychedelic grooves. If you’ve heard one song in their catalogue, you’ve heard them all. Consistency just may be this band’s most valuable asset but after so many releases perhaps it may have become their Achilles’ Heel.
Just like each of their previous releases, this album moves along at a predictable albeit enjoyable pace with snotty punk-meets-surf outings such as, “Rogue Planet” and “Lupine Ossuary”, medium tempo noise-pop jams with “Poor Queen” (my personal favorite song on the record) and “Turned Out Light” along with a few token slower pieces like “Palace Doctor”. I’m not going to lie and say I’ve heard everything this band has put out over the years but I have listened to enough to feel that this album is so predictable in style and tone, I correctly guessed what was coming next quite a few times during my first listen.
To be enthusiastic and positive as if this is the first time hearing Thee Oh Sees, you will hear all solid walls of guitar noise that will satisfy your shoegaze cravings paired with the pop sensibility found in most 1960’s throw-back bands all coming together, creating a unique sound of psychedelic garage goodness but on the negative side, the same exact review can be applied to every single album before this one. There is nothing wrong with playing to one’s strengths as well as delivering what’s to be expected by fans, but I don’t really see the harm in being just a little bit more ambitious.
Late in the album there’s an instrumental song called “Holy Smoke” that changes the buzzy formula a little bit by adding a sparkling acoustic guitar and almost country beat, crafting one of the more interesting songs on the record. It’s little teases like this that show you that Thee Oh Sees aren’t exactly one trick ponies and full on capable of adding an interesting flair to their sound here there but for some strange reason, choose not to. “Holy Smoke” isn’t the best song the album has to offer but upon multiple listens, it’s the only one that stands out.
I’m not going to give the band grief for consistently putting out music, but perhaps they are a bit exhausted with their own music and don’t even realize it? Maybe a hiatus is in fact in order? By taking some time off and reconvening with a fresh outlook, would encourage the band to stretch out musically, and create something with a slight sense of ambition? Sure there have been many bands that have fallen victim to over ambition, or evolving into something that alienates long time fans, but in the same breath, there have been just as many that have become stale and boring by not stepping out past their front door.
Thee Oh Sees are a great band that have more than proved themselves as competent artists in today’s indie scene but to someone who may have listened to at least half of their records, they are beginning to sound a bit tired. Mutilator Defeated At Last is not exactly a step in the wrong direction, it’s just not a step at all.
Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.