The Bay Area’s most prolific contemporary thrashers, Thee Oh Sees, are a force of strange nature. Led by mastermind John Dwyer, the amorphous group seemingly record and perform constantly, producing brilliant, sharp garage ditties virtually around the clock. As a consequence, the ragtag group has conjured a revival for psychedelia and ushered in a further appreciation of music rooted in early garage sensibilities.
So, how is it that Thee Oh Sees — creatures of perpetual motion, propelled by talent and never-ending ideas, leading a string of sold-out performances and with much left to give — announce a hiatus? It’s too easy to chalk this shift up solely to the inevitable and rapid silicon restructuring of San Francisco. After all, swathes of artists (Ty Segall, Grass Widow, and Dwyer himself among them) are relocating and forging creative communities elsewhere, from Oakland to Los Angeles.
Naturally, like every group of ambitious, creative people, this band is entitled to a pause, a re-shuffle, a re-focusing of energy and importance. The music business is fickle, and shaky, and strange, it’s true; and if you’re like Thee Oh Sees, who operate very much with a do-it-yourself ethos reflective of hardcore, it’s as easy to be swept up by it all as it is exhausting.
Dwyer can’t sit completely still, though. That’s how sharks die. Despite moving to Los Angeles, his Castle Face Records label operates at a ferocious rate; this year, the label’s goal has been to release two records a month. Dwyer himself recorded a deeply strange and moving electronic record under the moniker Damaged Bug, in addition to releasing Thee Oh Sees’ latest feat, Drop.
What’s in a name? Perhaps nothing absolute, but it’s worth bookmarking that this record dropped on Record Store Day, a yearly event that continues to amplify audiophiles’ sensibilities for grooves and limited edition vinyl presses. While “drop” might imply a fall, it’s not from innocence; it’s the uplifting hope that accompanies a total embrace of chaos. This record is unlike anything you previously thought about Thee Oh Sees; drop your preconceptions at the garage door. Be prepared to suspend your disbelief. Drop is Dwyer’s absolute piece de resistance, a personal triumph, a paradigm shifter, and a poignant love letter all at once. But, knowing him, Dwyer might release something equally astounding by the end of the year.
Unlike every Thee Oh Sees release before it, Drop features Dwyer performing nearly every instrument himself. Brigid Dawson’s harmonies are notably missing, Petey Dammit’s ferocity absent, Mike Shoun’s seething drums dissipated. But a different sort of intensity is explored here, as the luminous psych pop songwriter Mikal Cronin contributes saxophone, dipping into his music school talents; Greer McGettrick of the stellar The Mallard lends vocal support, and Thee Oh Sees contributor Chris Woodhouse assists on drums.
The dynamics of Drop are entirely divergent of, say, 2011’s Carrion Crawler/The Dream or last year’s meaty Floating Coffin. By contrast, Drop is indebted to Nuggets-era ’60s comps, but instead of simply copping the aesthetic, Drop celebrates the resonance of a movement, from the sunburned strums of Strawberry Alarm Clock to the Electric Prunes crooning about dreaming too much last night. The effect is dreamy but taut; the saxophones in particular inject a dimension that complements the subject matter of the songs, revelatory and bittersweet. “I can’t see, I can’t hear you,” Dwyer cries out in “Put Some Reverb on My Brother”, as the saxophones wail in conjunction with his voice. Yet the rippers are still present, particularly with the album’s opener, “Penetrating Eye”. They just emerge more sparingly in lieu of gentler, melancholic numbers, notably the ambient “Transparent World”, recalling Broadcast’s soft, fuzzy electronics instead of shit-kicking Animals singles.
Thematically, Drop is focused on vision, specifically, what’s seen and what’s concealed. “Life is a camera, and I cannot get near ya,” muses the chorus of “Camera”. “You can’t see my face,” Dwyer whispers on “Savage Victory”. “The Lens” begins: “You look through the lens today/ All is cracked and hazy.” Mirrors, cameras, and lenses are all over Drop, an artistic statement that effectively functions as a screen.
Still, it’s difficult to not view this record in the face of a shifting San Francisco. Fading landscapes are painted everywhere; “the setting sun” gets a nod on the rubber tensions underlying “Encrypted Bounce”, which evokes the Golden Gate wisped with fog in the distance, the Painted Ladies cast in warm, purple shadows. The album’s most full-bodied track, “The King’s Noise”, is a slow dance with San Francisco, reflective of a larger truth we must all face at some point: the heart-panging, gut-wrenching farewell.
It’s not exactly a goodbye, but a masterfully penned “so long for now.” “I expect to see them again,” Dwyer murmurs on the title track, speaking to an old friend. Drop is certainly a salute to the memories of a city now reserved for memory and accepting the cyclical change that’s undeniable. If you love something or someone dearly, they say you must let it go. In that spirit, Dwyer’s optimistic but holding these memories close. “If we survive,” he whispers on the album’s closer. You can imagine him looking onward, slugging his heart as he says: “I will love you always.”
Essential Tracks: “The King’s Noise”, “Encrypted Bounce”, and “The Lens”