Friday, March 29, 2013

ruminations: thee oh sees- 'floating coffin'/white fence- 'cyclops reap'- the keys to the castle

It never ceases to amaze me how fertile the psychedelic and garage landscape in music continues to be. The constant flow of great bands popping up year after year as well as those more obscure bands that are able to carve a niche for their development seems to only grow. Case in point a few weeks ago when an announcement on the Castle Face Records facebook page made the new Oh Sees and White Fence releases available almost a month early. The coloured vinyl version of ‘Cyclops Reap’ by White Fence sold out in a matter of an hour and a half (granted there were only 250 of them) with the coloured version of Thee Oh Sees’ 15th (or so, depending on your view) LP ‘Floating Coffin’ following soon behind. Having been a longterm fan of Thee Oh Sees they have proven themselves time and time again to be exactly the type of band that I had always pined for when I first started listening to music in high school. It always used to annoy me that music fans in the 60s were able to enjoy such a ceaseless stream of great releases in such a short amount of time from their favourite bands. This speed continued to a large extent through the bulk of the 80s. Even the Cure managed to get an album out every year until 1987’s double LP ‘Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me’ broke the pattern—now it takes them an eternity to release a single album of material that doesn’t hold a candle to their most prolific period. Thee Oh Sees are able to release albums at an alarming rate that never dip in quality. Somehow each release seems stronger than the last despite the statistical improbability of such a thing. With last year’s ‘Putrifers II’ I was pretty sure there was no way they could keep topping themselves, and yet here comes ‘Floating Coffin.’

When I saw the Ty Segall/Thee Oh Sees double header at Logan Square Auditorium last year they played several new songs that could only be described as brain-meltingly glorious. I was hopeful that the wait to hear them on record wouldn’t be long and I was right, as it turns out. ‘Floating Coffin’ is probably the most far-out psychedelic offering they’ve presented so far. What strikes me the most about it is how it seems to have found a way to do the impossible—it pairs the early mellow incarnation of the band from ‘Sucks Blood’ and ‘Thee Hounds of Foggy Notion’ with the glorious garage chaos of ‘Help’ and ‘Warm Slime.’ There is some fear and menace in these bouncing droners that simply wasn’t there before. Listen to ‘Night Crawler’ if you don’t know what I mean. It’s almost enough to remind you of the paranoia-laced beauty that Love’s ‘Forever Changes’ came from. The 60s weren’t all just about peace and love, there was a fair amount of menace and uncertainty mixed in there. There is also some surprising beauty woven into some of these tracks—John Dwyer and Brigid Dawson cooing some of their loveliest harmonies during the melodic verses of ‘Toe Cutter – Thumb Buster’ between the fuzz-squalling riffs over the breaks. All of ‘No Spell.’ The second half of ‘Strawberries 1 + 2’ piles on the fuzz and the beauty together. I can hardly wait to hear the tracks live. Then there’s also the flexi of traditional hymn ‘There is a Balm in Gilead’ that came with the coloured vinyl version. It’s basically Dawson’s voice overdubbed with a dab of reverb and tremolo singing the song like an incantation. It’s incredibly beautiful and a treasure that would be worth tracking down. As annoying as I find this whole flexi revival that’s going on (I mean, come on, they’re a pain the ass to get to play properly most of the time), the racket that this particular one makes as the needle floats over the grooves almost serves as added atmosphere for me.

As for ‘Cyclops Reap’ it points out one of my favourite aspects of this new crop of bands (a lot of whom are on or associated with Dwyer’s Castle Face Records) who are able to get their musical vision across more vividly in a self-recorded context than they would if they shelled out the money to record in a studio. It sounds like ‘Cyclops Reap’ would’ve cost a fortune to complete in a studio, plus it’s entirely possible that the increase in fidelity wouldn’t have been that significant in the end. Stylistically the album is a mix of Presley’s contribution to the ‘Group Flex II: Son of Flex’ compilation ‘Scared People Dream’ and the ‘Nuggets’ sound of last year’s ‘Family Perfume’ double LP. There’s a bit more layering piled onto these songs to make them more disorienting and dense. I find myself struggling to figure out how Presley was able to record these on a 4-track. It takes a bit more persistence and demands a bit more of your time than ‘Family Perfume’ did, but the songs come to you slowly if you are willing to put in the time. I also sprung for the ‘Pink Gorilla’ 7” which features the title track for ‘Cyclops Reap,’ which is more in line stylistically with the aforementioned ‘Scared People Dream.’ I’m particularly fond of the delay-saturated chiming of the keyboards on ‘To the Boy I Jumped in the Hemlock Alley’ and the way the lead guitar lines are overdubbed out of sync on nearly every song. Also, the desolated, nonsensical musing of ‘The Only Man Alive’ is both emotionally isolated and funny. Bonus points for the fact that, like all of Presley’s albums, it sounds much better on vinyl than in digital form.

I don’t know how much longer either White Fence or Thee Oh Sees will be able to maintain this level of growth, but considering how each could’ve easily succumbed to a dead-end sound and haven’t by now is more than promising. This cross-pollination of garage and psychedelia is proving to be something that was barely touched upon when it actually was a new thing in the 60s. It’s the most perfect of unlikely marriages. As more and more people continue to take notice—look at Ty Segall’s accelerated growth in popularity over the past year or the fact that Mikal Cronin’s second solo record is coming out on Merge—the quality and integrity of pretty much any artist associated with Dwyer and company is only getting better. Segall could’ve slouched into a one-trick pony fairly easily, but listen to ‘Goodbye Bread’ alongside ‘Twins’ or ‘Slaughterhouse’—there is so much more ground to cover that hasn’t even been imagined yet. I’m really enjoying the ride.

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