While these days it’s relatively easy to hear or read them described in basically garage-band terms, it is very much worth noting that San Francisco’s Thee Oh Sees began operation as a far weirder amalgamation of influences. Formed by John Dwyer, ex of such impressive noise-rock outfits as Coachwhips and Pink and Brown, Thee Oh Sees explored avenues of less raucous but intensely attractive outsider headspace. Their first LP THE COOL DEATH OF ISLAND RAIDERS for instance, drew upon such disparate if simpatico angles and influences as The Shaggs, loner-psyche, freak-folk, post-Krautrock drones and even hints of The Paisley Underground at its least collegian. A big part of the band’s appeal comes via vocalist/keyboardist Brigid Dawson, her voice at times conjuring up the bruised eeriness that makes underground UK psyche-folk such a continually appealing proposition. But as tilting an ear toward the very necessary corral of short-players SINGLES VOL. 1 + 2 or the outstanding full-length CASTLEMANIA from earlier this year shows, Thee Oh Sees also have a predilection for rock. And even though I haven’t managed to absorb every bit of their sizable discography I feel confident in proclaiming that the freshly released CARRION CRAWLER /THE DREAM LP finds them at the very top of their game. It shows an expert hand at combining the aesthetic and sense of scale that continues to define the garage genre with welcome gusts of legit psyche action all without the slightest bit of dissonance in presentation, which is really worth noting since the stripped down grunt of basic garage-rocking often suffers when mixed with more outbound tendencies. The appeal of “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night” or “Incense and Peppermints” stems from gestures less sincere and far more trend-conscious, but the tone turning serious frankly resulted in scads of mere curiosities and outright missteps, and anyway it’s 2011 and Thee Oh Sees are markedly not in a post-NUGGETS mold; frankly they’re just too intrinsically weird for that designation. John Dwyer is a byproduct of the fertile ‘90s underground, a scene where it wasn’t a bit unusual to find folks drawing influence from such varied sources as garage odd-meats Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Krautrock kingpins Can, UK free-folksters Comus, and avant-drone monster Charlemagne Palestine. And CARRION CRAWLER wastes no time in showing off Dwyer and Co’s far-reaching scope, though the sprawl is generally rock taggable; the opener “Carrion Crawler” hits upon an exquisite run of extended riff-worship that’s like PIPER-era Floyd if they recorded for International Artists, but with just a hint of outbound distorto soloing that recalls Wayne Rogers of much missed ‘80s New England psychsters Crystallized Movements. “Contraption/Soul Desert” utilizes finely tuned passages of stun guitar to come up with something that’s not far from early Airplane if they’d been routinely shoot-up in the left butt-check with primo ‘roids by some rogue manager. But it’s the instrumental “Chem-Farmer” that provides CARRION CRAWLER with its standout track, locking into a brawny, vaguely Kraut-like rhythmic groove and then just riding it until they actually start inspiring visions of a mythical garage-punk version of early Stereolab. If Thee Oh Sees don’t manage to attain the heights of “Chem-Farmer” on the second side, they don’t miss by much, and I’m quite pleased with the development of their motion. “The Dream”’s sound actually registers as completely contemporary and very hard for me to draw comparisons with any other band currently working, though I’m sure I could come up with something if I sat here and contemplated it for a while. Maybe the label switch to In The Red has something to do with it (or maybe I’m just imagining things) but The Oh Sees are fine-tuning their sound, becoming heavier, more muscular while reining back the weirdness and not sacrificing a thing in depth or quality. CARRION CRAWLER/THE DREAM’s second side presents a well focused band upping the forcefulness of their attack to fine result, and I’m quite psyched to hear Thee Oh Sees’ future developments. No pun intended.
I’m on record as considering the first three albums by The Grateful Dead to be something like the apex of San Francisco psyche as rendered in the studio environment, and prizing LIVE/DEAD as one of the greatest of all live rock albums. That trio of studio-bound Dead discs essentially present a blues-based band not particularly far from the standard Stones/Yardbirds template (the debut THE GRATEFUL DEAD) subsequently undertaking considerable levels of experimentation (ANTHEM OF THE SUN) and then combining that spirit of exploration with maturing songwriting skill and instrumental prowess (AOXOMOXOA). And as great as those three records continue to be, LIVE/DEAD, when considered along with the concert captured on Quicksilver Messenger Service’s HAPPY TRAILS and the half live/all awesome stature of Big Brother and the Holding Company’s CHEAP THRILLS basically sums up San Fran psyche as a true 'performance based' music. Indeed, the constant touring of the Dead and the ritualistic grandeur of their shows springs from just this very idea. Even though I think their first three records get a bad rap from certain quarters, I can’t deny that when it comes to the Dead, live is where it’s at. And after catching lightning in a bottle and waxing it on four sides of vinyl, just where does this particular band go from there? Back into the studio where they recorded WORKINGMAN’S DEAD, frankly a record it took me years to warm up to. Full disclosure: as a mid-‘80s Johnny-come-lately suburban punk I found The Grateful Dead to be something distinctly other than my bag, dig me? Of course I grew up and out of that shortsightedness, and LIVE/DEAD was the major part of my maturation. Sure, I also grabbed a handle on that early studio stuff, mainly because I’d grown curious over the storied nature of the San Fran scene in general, looking into names big (Quicksilver, Santana, Sly, Steve Miller, Airplane, Country Joe, Big Brother, Moby Grape, It’s a Beautiful Day) and small (Mad River, Frumious Bandersnatch, Mojo Men, The Mystery Trend, Kak, Fifty Foot Hose). But LIVE/DEAD hit me like a ton of Tex Avery’s cartoon bricks, and back then in my estimation the unabashed studio-based acoustic country-folkishness of WORKINGMAN’S DEAD just didn’t compare. Well, it still doesn’t, but I’ve come to consider LIVE/DEAD and WORKINGMAN’S to be something like apples and oranges harvested from the same funky orchard. The first of two Dead albums released in 1970, WORKINGMAN’S opens and closes with two by now ubiquitous tunes from the band, the somewhat Crosby Stills and Nash-like “Uncle John’s Band” and the country-rock cornerstone “Casey Jones”. I’ve heard these classic rock radio staples more times than I can shake a rucksack made from 100% hemp at, but what’s interesting is how they can transcend being overplayed and still work in the context of the LP that spawned them. In addition, WORKINGMAN’S also includes a few deep cuts/concert staples in “High Time”, the distinctively bluesy “New Speedway Boogie”, the rollicking “Cumberland Blues” and the fabulous “Black Peter”. What I’ve come to accept over the years is just how strongly conceived and well delivered these songs are. What I’ve come to acknowledge over the years is just how prescient their sound was; this album and AMERICAN BEAUTY are basically Americana in a nutshell (check out “Dire Wolf” if you don’t believe me). And what I’ve come to understand over the years is that some stereotypes are really nothing more than collective faulty opinions. That is, for a band often derided for excessiveness and self-indulgence, WORKINGMAN’S DEAD is lean in construction and direct in execution. As the record’s most psychedelic track, “Easy Wind” is notable in this context, heading outward but retaining the relative brevity of the album’s other seven songs. By this late date The Grateful Dead are not only deeply ensconced as major players in non-crap rock lore but also continue to be relevant in a contemporary sense, influencing scads of bands including Wilco, The Decemberists and Animal Collective. They were also the true survivors of the San Fran scene, releasing quality albums deep into the ‘70s when their contemporaries had succumbed to shilling out sub-par product or far worse. WORKINGMAN’S DEAD might pale in comparison to one of the band's top-notch live shows or even next to the intense studio weirdness of ANTHEM OF THE SUN, but it’s still a jewel in its own right. If you don’t know it, please proceed. And if you’re undecided? Well, it can never hurt to reconsider.