Album Review: Thee Oh Sees — Singles Collection Volume Three

Thee Oh Sees are nothing if not prolific. Since 2006, they have released ten proper albums, two collections of singles and B-sides, and any number of EPs, split albums, and singles. The output arms race continues to see the garage rockers (and their San Francisco compatriots like Ty Segall and Sonny Smith) lapping the competition in an era where we don’t think twice about waiting two (or four!) years between albums from bands likes Arcade Fire or The National. As such, it must be difficult for even the most die-hard Thee Oh Sees fans to keep up with this pace. That’s where the latest collection, Singles Collection Volume 3, comes in handy: It compiles several singles, B-sides, unreleased material, and live tracks into one slickly packaged LP.

Singles Collection Volume 3, is decidedly not an “album,” at least in our contemporary sense of how an album should have thematic and sonic currents running throughout. Instead, each song stands on its own as a representation of the distinctive Thee Oh Sees sound of late: wildly charged garage and psych rock tunes with a thick layer of distortion, noise, and scuzzy effects that belie pop-influenced roots, innovative orchestration, and skillful performance (meaning, they are smarter than they might sound on first listen).

Singles Collection Volume 3 shows Thee Oh Sees performing two distinctive tasks. The first is garage rock that takes traditional pop song structures and processes them through a gritty filter. For example, album opener “Ugly Man” features a ’60s pop cliché melody (think The Supremes’ “Bah-Bah-Bah”). Where one might expect saccharine sweetness, vocalist John Dwyer growls while his accompanying guitar squeals.  The twist on expectations continues into the lyrics, as Dwyer intones, “I’m an ugly man greasing down the road/ I open up my mouth and the ugly flows.” This song could be taken as a statement of purpose for the tracks that follow. Dwyer and his band start with a predictable rock construction, then twist, distort, and push the song down a road where easy sentiment becomes something rough, loud, distorted, and altogether new.

The other thing Thee Oh Sees do well is straight sonic experimentation. Between designing custom fuzz pedals and playing unusual lucite guitars, Dwyer would seem to be particular about his gear, and his modified contraptions are a part of the screeching and wailing sounds that are Thee Oh Sees’ signature. On this collection, a pair of tracks show the band at their experimental best. “Burning Spear” opens with scratchy, echoing guitar noise against a pounding rock rhythm. It grows more and more chaotic before exploding into an unexpected, driving beat that swings around a siren-like progression. If Dwyer’s lyrics are meant to be meaningful, all sense is lost as he pitches and screams his way through the vocal track. This puts his voice into the range of pure instrument, adding a melodic tone to the mix.

The following track, “What You Need”, is an even more polished example of this experimentation. It opens with a few seconds of feedback before shifting into a galvanic groove that would be an ideal soundtrack to a ’70s movie, featuring a big rig racing down the highway (perhaps featuring a father-son team fighting off a group of hijackers as they deliver medical supplies, or some similar badass scene). Again, Dwyer’s vocals are disconnected from anything nearing lyrics, but here he is joined by Brigid Dawson, whose soprano adds another tonal dimension. The repetitive melody lets the rhythm section shine as bassist Petey Dammit and drummer Mike Shoun lead an open-throttle, memorable groove.

Thee Oh Sees have long been regarded as one of the most riotous live bands on the indie rock circuit. A friend’s recent two-sentence review captured the bacchanalian delight best: “I broke my glasses. It was awesome.” The CD and digital versions of Singles Collection Volume 3 feature two live tracks, including one bonus track that didn’t fit on the vinyl. Album closer “Destroyed Fortress/No Spell” is an excellent representation of Thee Oh Sees live. It takes the listener on a chaotic, ten-plus minute ride through a raucous show-closer.

Thee Oh Sees aren’t breaking any new ground on Singles Collection Volume 3. Instead, long-time fans who have a completist urge will find owning these tracks in one stylish package to be a necessity (the vinyl’s “silver foil jacket with incredible tritone all-original artwork” looks dope), while new listeners will get a good survey of the diverse songwriting and groove-heavy garage/psych rock of Thee Oh Sees.

Essential Tracks: “What You Need”, “Wait Let’s Go”, and “Always Flying”


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