Thee Oh Sees, ‘Floating Coffin’ – Album Review
John Dwyer and the merry troupe of bash-rock minstrels that make up the San Francisco garage psych outfit Thee Oh Sees have managed to put out an album every year for the past five years. Two in 2011. And that’s not counting live albums and singles collections. The group’s output ranges from scorched earth rock freakouts to pastoral echo-chamber folk. On last year’s ‘Putrifiers II,’ they even tried string accompaniment. They’re a group that’s not afraid to try new things, and their albums benefit from an overabundance of ideas grounded in a kind of well-oiled-machine rock ’n’ roll sensibility.
There’s always been an ever-present, id-like core to Thee Oh Sees’ music, and their sound is usually dictated by how little or how much they want to dress it up or down. Their prolific recording habits have afforded them an incremental approach over the years, and on their newest offering, ‘Floating Coffin,’ they’ve managed to whittle their sound right down the viscera-drenched center. To put it another way, where ‘Purifiers II’ had a layer of velvet and cotton, ‘Floating Coffin’ is nothing but blood and guts.
Noise and chaos have always been central ingredients to Thee Oh Sees, and we’ve seen the group reach these heights before on apocalyptic, gritted-teeth excursions like ‘Contraption/Soul Desert’ and ‘The Dream’ off of 2011’s ‘Carrion Crawler/The Dream.’ But ‘Floating Coffin’ is the band cementing themselves as a veritable institution of lizard-brained freakout carnage. They’ve zeroed in on exactly what they do best and built an entire album around it. Almost every song is a variation on the hang-back, build-build-build, explode, keep-exploding attack strategy the group has been employing for a while now, and the mileage they get out of it on ‘Floating Coffin’ is kind of astonishing.
Opener ‘I Come From the Mountain’ marks a barebones execution of the above formula, turning the pocketed drum-fills, tailspin bass line, yelped vocals and octave-up guitar solos into a primeval mantra of intent. Dwyer’s syncopated “yah-yah-yah”s and the dirt-brained, scale-descending bridge are so gleefully harebrained that it’s easy to forget you’re supposed to be holding on for dear life. The almost-metal ‘Toe Cutter – Thumb Buster’ comes next, sporting one of the most vicious and diabolical feedback-ruined riffs Thee Oh Sees have ever put to tape. The genius is in just how thoroughly the pixie-voiced verses are blasted apart by the riff’s return.
‘Floating Coffin’ might be Thee Oh Sees’ first perfect game. Sure, the title track is a little delirious, even for these guys, but it’s over so quickly that its off-the-rails-ness is nothing if not another high-point when you consider its surroundings. There’s the album’s centerpiece, ‘Strawberries 1+2,’ which jumps deliciously between marching crash-and-burn meteor impacts and a punky motorik momentum before settling into a snarling, dreamy mid-tempo groove, Dwyer and Dawson crooning nightmarish lullabies. The horror-movie space rock of ‘Night Crawler’ is the darkest the record gets, with its mountainous curdled guitar riff and bad-trip atmospherics.
And then there’s the closer, ‘Minotaur,’ which is far and away the softest cut on the record. It’s also one of the most beautiful Thee Oh Sees have recorded. Creeky synthetic strings swell around a chunky downbeat guitar, Dawson lazily “la-la-la”ing behind Dwyer’s resigned vocal delivery. On ‘Floating Coffin’ it feels like Thee Oh Sees are bearing down and polishing what they’ve already proven themselves best at, and as a result, they’ve come away with their most complete and rounded statement to date.