Thee Oh Sees’ newest record Castlemania kicks off with “I Need Seed,” a ragged, bouncy number that’s evocative — both in form and content — of nothing more so than Gary Young’s 1994 novelty hit “Plant Man.” It’s a curveball, sure, but it’s tough to be surprised by anything from John Dwyer and co. these days. After transitioning from the blissful weirdness of The Cool Death of Island Raiders and Sucks Blood into straight-ahead garage rock with 2008’s The Master’s Bedroom is Worth Spending a Night In, we’ve been waiting for the group to reinvent its sound again. Castlemania does that — to a degree. With strings, horns, flutes, and a whole lot of noise added to the mix, the record makes for adventurous listening. It’s a happily un-samey record for a band perhaps on the brink of wearing out the possibilities of their bare-bones garage rock.
While Castlemania lacks the punchy, propulsive crowd-pleasers (“I Was Denied,” “Block of Ice”) that have lately been the band’s stock and trade, the record glows with the unhinged, live-in-studio quality that translates so well to an Oh Sees live show. This is a band of rockers, not jammers — they largely keep things brief, and no song here wears out its welcome. Dwyer’s flat, nasal delivery on songs like “AA the Breeze” might sound downright evil in another band, but here it’s purely in the service of goofing around.
Small eccentric touches are everywhere —“Blood on the Deck” begins with a left-in microphone check of “Seven, Seven, Seven!” “A Wall, a Century 2” aptly crashes into a wall of drums. “The Horse Was Lost” is a pastoral string-and-woodwind passage that builds atop shuffling percussion, then simply fades out. “Spider Cider” is the album’s most concise (and silly) pop song at 58 seconds, bounding in a lot like The Box Tops’ “The Letter.” The familiarity peaks with a trio of 60s covers: West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s “I Won’t Hurt You” (also covered by Love as Laughter on Laughter’s Fifth), The Creation’s “If I Stay Too Long,” and Norma Tanega’s “What Are We Craving?” The Creation cover is a gem: the band sounds like a carbon copy of the Brian Jonestown Massacre circa “Take It From the Man!” Which, of course, means it sounds just like the Stones.
But what’s really terrific about Castlemania and about Thee Oh Sees at this stage in their careers is how much fun they’re clearly having. In this case, fun is translating to a lot of ideas and a lot of records. Not all the ideas are good, and not all the records are consistent, but the goal here isn’t perfection. The records are rough and dirty because the band is rough and dirty; their albums come out quickly because they write music so quickly. A good band this prolific is a real and immediate pleasure.