A band known for its bold, uncompromising vision, San Francisco’s Thee Oh Sees open Warm Slime with arguably its boldest statement yet. The title track is a 13-minute psychedelic mess, perfectly encapsulating the band’s jagged aesthetic and extensive discography. With a one-two-three-four, lead singer John Dwyer (he formerly of Coachwhips and Pink and Brown) kicks off the musical maelstrom as it moves from sludgy proto-punk to a galloping guitar freakout. Dwyer and keyboardist Brigid Dawson trade yelps, and their guy-girl dynamics are used to great effect. Their mantra, as the chaos ebbs and flows: “All we need is the summertime.” No further explanation is given — nor is it really needed, as the band’s mysteriousness (and cartoon-like quality) is its calling card.
But opening a new album with possibly one of the best songs the band ever recorded has its problems. For starters, the rest of the record pales in comparison. Thee Oh Sees are known for being restless and prolific, releasing several albums’ worth of material every six months or so. Their back catalog is littered with good-not-great songs; they’re more concerned with trying on every conceivable psychedelic hat. The same goes for the rest of Warm Slime. Every subsequent garage punk jam is breathing that title track’s gnarly dust.
There are still a few gems to be found. Unlike many of his retro lo-fi peers, Dwyer knows his way around a melody, making things just weird enough to keep listeners engaged through yet another three-chord fuzz fest. “I Was Denied” immediately follows “Warm Slime,” and the crunchy shuffle oddly enough cleanses the palette after the exhausting musical marathon. The reverb is maxed-out throughout the record, abstracting the sound to an almost absurd degree. There’s no telling where one distorted sound wave ends and another begins on “Flash Bats,” but the groovy drumming tethers the song to sturdy ground. Dwyer really hams it up on the psycho surf-jangle of “Castiatic Tackle,” but he sounds best when he’s fighting with Dawson for space. The two singers’ high registers add a spark that few others can claim: a good dose of fun. They sound downright whimsical on the rockabilly fervor of “Mega-feast,” and their creepy interplay on “Everything Went Black” is a highlight on the album’s back half.
Warm Slime is possibly Thee Oh Sees’s most challenging record to date, marking a 180-degree turn from the (relatively) clean psych-pop of Help and the acid-folk of Dog Poison, both from 2009. Yet the seeming contradictions of that last sentence show Thee Oh Sees in perpetual motion. Their ragged weirdness can be overwhelming to the uninitiated, but the converted will be ushered through a strange, wonderful trip. The fact that Warm Slime doesn’t quite measure up to the band’s lofty previous releases is hardly the point. Thee Oh Sees are already careening down another road at 100 miles per hour, and you best keep up.