Thee Oh Sees Putrifiers II

[In The Red; 2012]

Styles: garage psychedelia, hippie influences infiltrating The Velvet Underground
Others: Thee Milkshakes, Thee Headcoats, Ty Segall, Sic Alps, Coachwhips

One could deem a band like Thee Oh Sees as “unoriginal” or “uncreative” based on sonic reasons alone. By taking from both the past and present to create their identifiably strange, stomp-worthy sound, Thee Oh Sees don’t forge any new musical paths. Their music is not a product of striving for the future, the present, or even the past for that matter, but rather a construction based on an already common mode of creative expression, which is often undermined by notions of “newness” formed on purely aesthetic terms. But this is something I would like to steer away from. Instead, I’m interested in exploring a larger, more optimistic view of both so-called regressive garage bands and creativity in general in order to answer this question: What makes Thee Oh sees so enjoyable past the id?

Here’s how I discovered the notion of an ill-creative contemporary culture: in 2011, Simon Reynolds released a book called Retromania, in which he argues that pop’s knowledge of its past is hindering its future. He wraps up a section regarding the prolific artist Billy Childish with these words, “[…] in love for eternity, undyingly faithful to a golden memory, unable to move on.” Here, Reynolds discredits Childish’s entire body of work as a form completely void of any semblance of modernity. While it’s true that, through antique recording techniques and an adherence to a “dated” aesthetic, Childish’s bands didn’t produce anything particularly “new”-sounding, this narrowed viewpoint misses what was noteworthy about Childish’s approach to music: the reassessment of the value of structural pop and its formal qualities, and the foregrounding of what was deemed “immature” over what was branded “progressive.” In this view, progression had taken away from what was a sort of complex simplicity, placing a hierarchical stranglehold over rock’s/pop’s juvenile value.

Outside of the actual sounds, this reanalysis is what could be considered “new” about Childish’s music. Like everything else, music was growing: it had a history, and just like history, it revalued and reassessed itself. Plenty of great and impactful literary theory is poured into the value of reassessing the literary canon as it continues to grow. Childish was not “unable to move on;” he had moved on from the idea of high artistic value of prog-pop by asserting revaluation. He appropriated the proper symbols, the proper moods, and formed something else entirely different, albeit reminiscent of a bygone era.

In the space between still trying to assess this and other arguments of contemporary pessimism, I take to Thee Oh Sees’ Putrifiers II, specifically “So Nice,” to point out how this facet of revaluation continues. If the first revival of garage was taking the immature to an obsessively serious degree, “So Nice” is doing the favor of reevaluating the degree of importance that non-seriousness plays. But it’s not just that they’re re-placing importance on irreverence, but rather that they’re combing the length of ideas to show that the line between serious and juvenile can be stretched. “So Nice” plays like Donovan’s “Legend Of A Girl Child Linda” being funneled through a major-key rendition of The Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs,” all tied together with abso-fucking-lutely ridiculous tremolo-voiced lyrics that go “Remember a day/ When fat kids got pie.” (I don’t have a lyric sheet, so there might be some creative misinterpretation here.) And it’s this sort of idea that says “be a child, yet be really prolific, yet make your fun as serious as possible without getting too furrowed in the brow.” This isn’t entirely New, but it is a newer take on a string-series of older ideas, the very way in which cultural memory produces cultural events for future generations. Outside of these pushy and delusional notions of Romantic Originality (which may have never existed), we find the skeleton for re-creating, reassessing, (de)valuing, recontexualizing, caring, not caring, etc. If it seems that there’s a lot of re-’s getting thrown around here, this is because of pop’s growing snowball: reexamining its size means reassessing how to build the new army of snow monsters.

Childish’s idea of production was to move away from overdubs, to keep the recording process at its most structurally simplistic. Here, Thee Oh Sees extend ever so slightly past this notion, recording with two stereo-panned drum tracks (also done on 2011’s Carrion Crawler/The Dream), member-ambiguous falsetto harmonies (between John Dwyer and Brigid Dawson), and a general stretching of pop formalism without extending too far into post-Sgt. Pepper’s territory. If the first garage revival movement was to strip things back, here Thee Oh Sees show what can be added while still retaining the original zeitgeist of garage-rock idealism. They’re one of the few bands I can think of where classical strings sound incredibly welcoming and fitting. One noted difference from the garage-ier sides of Thee Oh Sees is the lack of a barnburner (“The Dream” from Carrion Crawler/The Dream, the title track from Warm Slime), but in its absence is a greater control of the song craft. This is illustrated in the low-register-vs.-high-register sunshine pop of “Goodbye Baby,” the drone fuzz groove of “Lupine Dominus,” the bliss falsetto harmonies of “Hang A Picture,” the goofball lullaby of “Wicked Park.” Thee Oh Sees construct a serous approach to a non-serious existence, placing value upon both craft and childishness.

A friend of mine recently declared that the modern garage movement was one of the most depressing things he could think of, despite a civil war going on in Syria, despite a Manhattan restaurant hiring longboard delivery drivers, despite Michael Bay continuing to ice this cake by making more old-kids toys into crap movies — and this isn’t even in music news (I’d argue for this or this). My friend’s claim was obviously exaggerated, but it’s also a reflection of a lopsided bias toward “originality.” To my friend’s credit, he considers Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall exceptions, but I believe they all fall from the same tree. More importantly, I believe they all maintain the same significance in the “now.” In an age where pessimism is not only healthy, but also sometimes essential, this might be one of the few arguments for optimism I make. It’s hard not to: Thee Oh Sees leave me feeling very positive.

Links: Thee Oh Sees - In The Red

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