Last fall, San Francisco band Thee Oh Sees bestowed upon us an unexpected gift in the form of the EP Putrifiers II. As the name might suggest, the EP was grimy — but also delightful. Each song was its own distinct entity — at times fierce and electric, other times lethargic and mellow. While Thee Oh Sees can be praised for its consistent ability to provide quality California garage rock, something about Putrifiers II stood out as being evolved and distinct. When, months later, Thee Oh Sees provided us with the single “Minotaur” to preface their newest LP, Floating Coffin, the song had a more solemn, aged feeling to it.
Thee Oh See
Now, as we consider the EP, and single and all the bread crumbs along the beach Thee Oh Sees have left us with — well, those weren’t really helpful at all. No, those were just a distraction from the rotting corpse inside the Floating Coffin that has slowly been washing ashore.
Floating Coffin begins with a pretty standard Thee Oh Sees track, “I Come From the Mountain.” It’s driven with a relentless and agitated energy, sprinkled with the band’s classic reverberated shrieks of “oo!” and “woo!” or some variation. The track eventually overheats, melting down with a keyboard-guitar duet. The subsequent track, “Toe Cutter — Thumb Buster,” moves slowly and angrily, fighting against a thick, guitar-driven mass of sludge. But the track — like much of Thee Oh Sees’s work — balances grim fury with the soft and sugary falsetto of John Dwyer and Brigid Dawson. The title track, a frantic, pounding song that seems to mimic the panic of being buried alive, is granted an eerie quality with the vocals of Dwyer and Dawson gliding above fists pounding against mahogany.
Nowhere on the album do Thee Oh Sees show off their vocals as well as on “No Spell.” The song bursts into a shimmering, dreamy wave of guitars, rolling over angelic harmonized vocals. It’s smooth and pristine as undisturbed sand, then, with a classic Dwyer yelp, the song ignites in a scorching burst of guitars — but only for around 20 seconds. “No Spell” rolls in and out with the tide, but remains enchanting from dawn to dusk. But this pleasant little track is an oddity on Floating Coffin. Make no mistake about it; this album has a bone to pick.
The majority of Floating Coffin consists of Thee Oh Sees sounding pissed off about one thing or another, and it doesn’t divert much from their past work beyond the fact that it’s a little more angsty. The album definitely satisfies and stays true to the fuzzy, wild sound that made us fall in love with Thee Oh Sees in the first place. But while Putrifiers II may have had Thee Oh Sees fans looking forward to an album just as dynamic and fun as the EP, listening to Floating Coffin is sort of akin to the shock of seeing your younger cousin turn into a sullen, 10-inch-taller teenager who has acquired braces and an army of zits since the last time you saw him at the Christmas dinner table, baby-faced and bow-tied.
Perhaps, though, if the band is just entering its angst-ridden metaphorical “teenage” days (the band is actually quite older than what you might expect after listening — or looking — at them), then maybe that means they have years and years of developing and maturing to look forward to. “Minotaur,” the last track off Floating Coffin, expresses all the wisdom but also disenchantment that can come with growing older. It emerges in the fog, a languid track filled with weighty cellos, and tells the tale of the namesake mythical beast, trapped in a life of sickness and meaningless drudgery and dreams that will never come true. It’s not necessarily sad, but resigned. In the music video for the song, the Minotaur, after failing to win over a damsel in distress, is eventually killed in his sleep.
Perhaps Floating Coffin is a fight against this sense of defeat that can come with growing older, as possibilities seem to slip between your fingers without you even noticing. Maybe we are indeed being nailed shut alive in our individual coffins, floating along contentedly as it happens, but the wrath contained in Floating Coffin offers a wakeup call against this apathy.