David Von Nordheim
Any listener already familiar with Thee Oh Sees’ sprawling discography knows what to expect when approaching their latest release, “A Weird Exits.” The jam-heavy psychedelic garage-rock group, the brainchild of lead songwriter and guitarist John Dwyer, is nothing if not prolific. An easy contender for the title of “hardest working group in rock & roll,” Dwyer and company have released at least one studio album annually since 2006 while maintaining a relentless international tour schedule.
Given this impressive catalog, one would be forgiven for lowering their expectations for what TOS can accomplish on their 13th studio album that they have not already. The group has developed a characteristic druggy mojo over the years and their fans have come to anticipate a repetition of this well-established formula with minor variations.
Admittedly, the typical Dwyerisms are all here in abundance: billowing curtains of amplifier feedback; paint-peeling, fuzz-drenched guitar freakouts; yelping, incoherent vocals echoing from a cavernous depth in the mix; a structural looseness that belies the impressive synchronicity between Dwyer and his latest cast of supporting players.
Given the group’s astonishing productivity, their latest releases are understandably greeted with some reticence; indeed, it may prove difficult for the casual listener to distinguish much of “Exits” from previous albums, such as last year’s excellent “Mutilator Defeated at Last”.
Though it proudly bears many of the grungy hallmarks of their best work, “Exits” finds TOS offering many compelling flourishes on their garage-rock patois, capably dodging criticisms of over-saturation once again. Dwyer demonstrates a particular willingness to experiment with song structure while showcasing the individual talents of his ensemble on this release, leading to some of the most compelling material of TOS’ decade-plus of operation.
The changes are apparent from the outset with opening track “Dead Man’s Gun,” Though it superficially resembles a typical TOS jam – Dwyer coos and then barks something unintelligible over a complex riff before slamming into a solo, repeating the process four times– there is a noticeable tightness and insistence to the rhythm section.
New drummer Ryan Moutinho and returning bassist Timothy Hellman are given a prominent role on “Exits,” providing each track with a driving momentum that resembles the distinct 4/4 “motorik” beat that characterized the oftimitated but rarely equaled Krautrock bands of the 1970’s. It becomes even more apparent on the hypnotic, percussive “A Jammed Entrance,” in which Dwyer’s guitar is barely featured beyond a few background squawks.
Though “Exits” ultimately remains the John Dwyer show, his self-restraint yields interesting moments throughout, placing an increased emphasis on songwriting over the frantic improvisation that characterizes much of TOS’ output.
This is especially apparent in the second half of the record, demonstrated in the easygoing groove of “Unwrap the Fiend, Part 2” and the stately, ballad-like “Crawl Out from the Fall Out,” which includes
a standout performance from Moutinho and lyrics that are almost comprehensible.
The organ and percussion-driven closer, “The Axis,” seems poised to lead the album to a graceful conclusion until it climaxes, fittingly, with a chaotic belch of synthesizer and a solo that seems preposterous even by Dwyer’s standards.
Though it may not win them any new converts, “Exits” easily stands besides TOS’ most-lauded work,
providing another stellar showcase for the genius of John Dwyer. It provides as great an entry point to the group’s mammoth body of work as any, and as with all of their releases, it is impossible to imagine any fan of loud, ballsy rock ‘n’ roll.