Being a music critic at a small city publication comes with many perks, the most obvious of which might be frequent and complimentary exposure to live music. Local, national and international acts come and go, for better or for worse, but you always get a spot in the crowd to experience the dizzying blend of art and sound firsthand. You’ll see, then, why I threw a minor tantrum last night after I realized that I inadvertently blew off Thee Oh Sees on Saturday night.
I like to think that reviewing shows is a win-win-win situation; the band gets exposure and written account of their impact, the record labels could show some sort of increase in profit from that exposure, and I, of course, get to see a concert (and get paid for it). Likewise, not going just seems like the exactly opposite of all those circumstances. No one wins. Easily the biggest disappointment of my week, Thee Oh Sees played at the Empty Bottle, likely playing songs from their newest effort Castlemania, but in honor of the fall of best laid plans, I’m taking a look at the record that sparked my own fandom for the San Francisco-based act, Help.
On first glance of the album art (and maybe upon learning of the band’s geographical origins) you can see what kind of experience you’re in for. With a purple, hand-drawn bizarro bat and a bent rainbow, it’s definitely a “freak out” kind of album. The meticulous detail behind the caricatures stands testament to the weird energy and swirling, festering waves of shitty stereo blips and haze. The high-contrast color bleeds breaks through the flat surface and paints a picture of a nightmarish, white-knuckle acid trip through the SF freak scene.
Early in the album, “Ruby Go Home” sets up a quirky backdrop for Thee Oh Sees to work in. Repetitive and noisy, the guitars and vocals (both adequately squawky) set off at a blistering pace without much help from the bass guitar. The drums, although providing a solid pace, are somewhat pushed into the background. When the bass finally kicks in, the rhythm section finally starts to shine, bouncing with a little help from some extremely distorted staccato blips. At about 1:30, you can hear the full four-piece symphony at work as the guitar crashes into its first feedback drenched freakout. Everything is whole again. The barrage won’t be stopped.
Though the band is well-known for keeping the energy perennially high, their best use of crescendo happens on the B-side jewel “Soda St. #1″. A few warped guitar and vocal blips lead off the recording, pointing directly to a strum-and-drum rush and evenly-paced vocal triplets. All of this leads up to the surge of the song’s wordless chorus — a rushing hum of “ah”s. The song is only 2 1/2 minutes long, so the band makes the build-up count, taking only 10 seconds to get to the release and another 15 after that to get to the chorus.
Thinking back on my first exposure to this album makes me long for the days when I still had a car on the roads of southern California, where you actually had the room to safely go 80 mph and not hit three cyclists, a bus and an elderly woman crossing the street. It’s definitely a ‘get-there-quickly-and-moderately-unsafely” type of album, characterized by the bleeding reverbed echo and scorching instrumentation. You’d see purple bats and rainbows too if you were getting going a thousand miles per hour.
Artist: Thee Oh Sees
Tracklist & Review (Allmusic)