Thee Oh Sees frontman John Dwyer's garage-freakout art-noise bonafides are ironclad (see also: The Coachwhips; Pink and Brown), and it usually takes only one album-length dose of his most enduring and best band to start craving more.
And more there is. The San Francisco-based act has released nearly 20 full-lengths in the past dozen years. Picking out the best stuff from such a massive discography relies on a simple-enough hierarchy: here's the weird demo stuff, here's the one the blogs went nuts over, here's the experiment that shook off the bandwagon fans, and so on.
Thee Oh Sees are coming to the Amsterdam this Friday -- just in time to knock you out of your post-Thanksgiving turkey coma. Once you've done your civic duty of picking up their most recent record, the slickly produced yet still vertigo-inducing Drop, you might want a next step. So here are the best records for specific life situations, preferably ones where you have no idea how they'll end.[jump] I Want to Stump for "Their Old Stuff" Without Looking Like a Schmuck:
OCS (Tumult, 2003)
It doesn't get any more "old stuff" than the home-taped instrumentals Dwyer recorded over a six-year span from 1995 to 2001. A 53-song, two-CD collection of untitled songs under two subtitles (34 Reasons Why Life Goes On Without You and 18 Reasons to Love Your Hater to Death), OCS (a.k.a. 1) is ridiculously unwieldy and practically demands cherrypicking. But sitting through the sketched-out, kind of sloppy (in an endearing way) ultra-lo-fi moments is worth it when you're able to catch a moment of off-kilter folk-blues acoustic guitar prettiness or a mind-bending squall of abstract noise -- sometimes, in the first disc's seventh track, frantically decaying from one to the other.
OK But Seriously, What's Their Big Breakthrough Point of Entry:
Help (In the Red, 2009)
While 2006's The Cool Death of Island Raiders saw a quick emergence of Thee Oh Sees as a potential Big Deal -- they even got one of those enviable "produced by TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek" credits -- Help was where they really caught fire beyond the noise faithful. Their first release for deathless garage-punk purveyors In the Red is a gem, where melodic, riff-happy scuzz-rock is given a massive overdrive; think a '67 mixup where Syd Barrett wound up stumbling into the Standells. Not just in sound, but in verse: "Peanut Butter Oven" -- "One thing to be/ would be the dust on TV/ one thing to be/ stones wet with sympathy" -- is enigmatic psych poetry at its best. You could call it "cheerfully aggressive," but that makes it sound more dopey and sociopathic than the oddball, amped-up fun it really is. I Want to Smash Something (I Promise it Will Not Be an Act of Illegal Vandalism):
The Master's Bedroom Is Worth Spending A Night In (Tomlab, 2008)
Even with the undercurrents of confrontational weirdness that run through their noisiest work, the energy of Thee Oh Sees is largely a positive one; with more straightforward lyrics and less fuzzed-out, blown-out, echo-drenched delirium it could almost be slotted somewhere in the general neighborhood of power pop. But as it exists, their music exists at a level beyond the actual power that can be calculated in the boundaries of that genre -- it's real sledgehammer-to-drywall stuff, clobber-beat music for steel-toed feet. That's what happens when everything feels like a rhythm section, from Mike Shoun playing drums knuckles-first to Petey Dammit's bass lurking in the shadows to the motorized snarl of Dwyer's guitar. This is where their fusion of catchiness and punchiness really first came into its own, and the giddy energy to cuts like "Poison Finger" and "Adult Acid" is music to scrap cars by.
I Have a Bag of Something That Will Require an Appropriate Soundtrack:
Warm Slime (In the Red, 2010)
If psychedelia and garage-punk are two opposite ends of a long continuum -- and Thee Oh Sees exist in a world where that's not necessarily the case -- it easy enough to figure that they lean towards that latter end. That's mostly because they're not regularly prone to extended jams, even though the opening 13 1/2-minute title cut of Warm Slime justifies their biggest foray into that turf. If all it really requires in this example is a shit-ton of reverb on everything -- including Dwyer's increasingly antsy guitar, the harmonies with Brigid Dawson on insistent "All you need is a summertime" refrain, and Shoun's loping gallop of a drumbeat -- then it's a wonder they don't do it more often. Not a huge wonder, though; the more concentrated doses of three-ish-minute pokes to the third eye ("Everything Went Black"; "Flash Bats") are just as wild.
I Want to Smash Something (Like Maybe Your Face):
Floating Coffin (Castle Face, 2013)
Here's where things get vicious. Sure, the lyrics aren't that much more specific than the usual semi-abstract shards of phrases that make up your typical Oh Sees song. But picking up phrases here and there -- "Everyone's a problem sometimes;" "Splash blood upon the ground;" "I've been cleaning enough bodies;" enough conjugations of the verb "slay" to unnerve Noddy Holder -- makes it their prime horror album, the feral weirdness of the fanged-strawberry kaleidoscope album art a prime indicator of the record's grotesque color. Expect manic falsettos, gooey synthesizers, sludge metal, creaking violas, and enough sinister atmosphere to make that unnerving sensation really pop out. It's 4 a.m. and I'm Driving the Only Car on Hiawatha Avenue:
Sucks Blood (Castle Face, 2007)
Given Thee Oh Sees' origins as a one-man side project leaning heavily on acoustic guitars, it's kind of strange that the bulk of music put out under their banner doesn't really call back to it much. That does attest to the wide-ranging mutation Dwyer's capable of when he's got like-minded collaborators and a full studio at his disposal, but an album that carries a quiet (well, quieter) reflection throughout is a comparative rarity in the Oh Sees catalog. Sucks Blood carries a lot of its strengths in moments like that, even if the sense of spare, downbeat solitude in "Iceberg," "Ship," "The Gouger," and the droning Theremin-laced (or is that a musical saw?) title track leans more towards the unsettling side of quietude than the relaxing side.
I Am With That Special Someone:
Castlemania (In the Red, 2011)
OK, have fun on your weird date. Really, though, even if there's nothing overtly romantic about the themes of Castlemania (the first five tracks invoke death; the fifth is called "Pleasure Blimp"), it's damn near their cheeriest-sounding record, with goofy burbling Mellotron, gobs of yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah/la-la-la-la/ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba vocals, and Dwyer's (mostly) one-man band ramshackleness keeping things high-spirited to the point that it borders bubblegum. Even at its most abrasive, it's oddly sweet music for oddballs in love -- picture the happy little montage you could have to "I Won't Hurt You."
I Want to Get an Idea of How They Sound Live But I'm Deathly Afraid of Saint Paul:
Live at Death By Audio 2012 (Famous Class, 2013)
I get it, not everybody can handle the prospect of seeing this band in person and eating a big basket of frites with peanut satay sauce in the same night. That is some intimidating weight to bear, decadence-wise. So this 2012 set from the recently dearly-departed Brooklyn venue Death by Audio is a good home-listening approximation, where their studio material is given, more velocity, more room to stretch out, and more equalizing energy to gather up all their myriad tendencies into one frantic, manic, high-octane free-for-all. If this release motivates you to shake your ambivalence about the capitol city, it can also serve as a preview for what you might get: expect at least a couple of their shorter songs roiled up into krautrock-gone-nova rave-ups, like they did here for "Block of Ice" and "Dead Energy."
Thee Oh Sees. With Jake Name. $15, 8 p.m., Friday, November 28 at Amsterdam Bar & Hall
GIMME NOISE'S GREATEST HITS