Garage rock — that kaleidoscopic subgenre of rock ‘n’ roll, born from the eager simplicity of “Louie Louie” — has had remarkable staying power. Its popularity has ebbed and flowed over five decades, but a new generation has always been there to claim its scrappy banner. In 2009, we’ve seen a resurgence (or, more accurately, another peak in the cycle) of this lo-fi sound, where artists have embraced its Luddite-inspired ethos of tape hiss, muddled vocals, and even muddier music. The good thing about garage rock is anybody can make this music, actual recording studios be damned. The bad thing is literally anybody can make this music, actual talent be damned.
You can put San Francisco’s Thee Oh Sees in the former column: They are a good thing in this often-crowded subgenre, rising above the pack with memorable songwriting, dead-on harmonies, and instrumentation other than your standard guitar/bass/drums setup. Their backstory resembles their cluttered sound; it’s full of lineup changes, name changes (OCS to the Ohsees to Thee Oh Sees), and a myriad number of singles, splits, EPs, and LPs spread out over several record labels. Their evolving sound and longevity (forming in 1997) have made them something resembling garage-rock elder statesmen, and they’ve already had a good year so far with the release of their stellar eighth full-length, Help, back in April. With the band’s noted productivity, Dog Poison could appear tossed-off, especially considering that its 10 songs skip by faster than those of most EPs. Yet this is a toss-off that many likeminded bands would kill to have in their discography.
As we saw earlier with Help, Thee Oh Sees have gravitated to a more streamlined approach. Their songs are now compact bursts of psychedelic fury sweetened by girl-guy, reverb-drenched harmonies. Here on Dog Poison, they replace fuzzy electric guitars with fuzzy acoustic guitars, but the intensity and weirdness remains undiminished. Opener “The River Rushes (To Screw MD Over)” burns quickly before a bleating flute breaks through the mix to complement singer John Dwyer’s gleeful abandon. Unlike most of their peers, they have a sense of humor wafting through their freakouts, showing up as caveman-like growls on “Dead Energy” or the panpipe accompaniment competing with laser blasts of guitar feedback on “I Can’t Pay You to Disappear.” “Sugar Boat,” sounding like a campfire sing-along from hell, packs at least three potent hooks in its fleeting 120 seconds, while “Head of State” meanders in a psychedelic haze without wearing out its welcome (a testament to Dwyer’s newfound focus). Noisy interludes (“The Fizz,” “Voice in the Mirror”) balance out the surrounding distorted pop, and the ghostly folk of closer “It’s Nearly Over” wraps up the EP nicely.
Quality over quantity, the saying goes, especially in terms of artistic output. Yet Thee Oh Sees have managed to embrace both quality and quantity, giving them a leg up over most other lo-fi acts. Their skill will (and rightfully should) make heads turn, even if ‘60s-inspired garage rock ebbs once again.