With Castlemania scarring listeners’ ears back in June, Thee Oh Sees maniacal frontman Jon Dwyer casually claimed that the San Francisco outfit’s next would be their “best [album] yet.” Fans of the band never have to wait long—in the past two years, Thee Oh Sees have released five albums, and number five is certainly a doozy. While it doesn’t have the psych-pop variety of 2009’s breakthrough Help, Carrion Crawler/The Dream captures the band in psychedelic bulldozer mode instead, delivering ten blistering cuts at a furious pace.
As their live shows reach near-legendary status, it’s only fitting that Thee Oh Sees would attempt to capture that experience. With a massive back catalog and years of touring the world over, the group has honed their sound into a surprisingly nimble squall. Dwyer wanted Carrion Crawler/The Dream “to pummel and throb,” the two best descriptors for the record. He understands the value of rhythm, even in such a noisy band, using his guitar as a hammering drum on the highlight “Crushed Grass” before punctuating the vocal breaks with distorted string bends. The songs propel forward with an energy that’s palpable and useful for rhythmic workouts like “Chem-Farmer” and “Opposition.”
Dwyer’s rosy assessment of the album is further confirmed by some of the longer tracks. Most garage bands tend to stay away from extended jams, but Thee Oh Sees have worked it into a science. The record plays like a set list, with the skronky blues of “Carrion Crawler” warming up the crowd before the band sinks their teeth into the stabbing punk of “Contraption/Soul Desert.” The same riffs are repeated to the point of numbness, but that allows Dwyer to slice away with his particularly sharp guitar solos. Mid-album standout “The Dream” uses nearly seven minutes to show off the motorik drumming of not one but two timekeepers, Mike Shoun and new addition Lars Finberg. These kinds of extended instrumental stretches could get tedious in less-capable hands; Thee Oh Sees add danger, humor, and a dash of psychosis to keep things interesting.
The band’s greatest asset is their two-pronged vocal approach. Dwyer’s froggy yelp is oftentimes balanced out by Brigid Dawson’s otherworldly moan. It’s an effective trick, as the songs sound like lost cuts from an insane B-horror flick. Dwyer is an unabashed fan of that sort of lowbrow culture (check out that album cover), and Dawson’s cheesy keyboards certainly add to the campiness. But Dawson is also able to elevate the whole thing into something resembling high art with a simple harmony or “la la la” in the middle of a freakout. Like one of their shows, this dichotomy leaves you exhausted and amused, but eager for more of this madness.
How do they play so many shows? How do they write so many songs? How do their albums keep besting each other every six months? There’s no sense in trying to rationalize Thee Oh Sees. They’ve found a way to operate on a different level, one that keeps surprising and tugging at convention at every turn. They’re like a shark: constantly having to move forward, and ready to gulp up any garage guppies that swim in their way. As the record testifies, Thee Oh Sees are at the top of the food chain.