Adam Schatz (Landlady) Talks Thee Oh Sees’ Mutilator Defeated at Last

The opening track of Thee Oh Sees' new album is the prism through which the whole rest of the album can be seen.

“Across the Great Divide” (1969) and “Whole Lotta Love” (1969) and “My Name Is Jonas” (1994) and “Race for the Prize” (1999). For the rock & roll band that bleeds wholesome self-assuredness and conviction for their craft, for the rock & roll band whose members know exactly what they’re doing and how they’re doing it: these are the firsts. As the lead-off song of their album hoists, they hold the opening notes that the listener receives upon hitting play. They spell it all out. Here it is, it is all here, and here is the language we are speaking in. It is unarguable. The language of the artist can sometimes appear dense, demanding dissection and navigation. But often, with the greats, it washes over you, takes you in, and teaches you how you to speak it.

Thee Oh Sees have released a new album, and it’s called Mutilator Defeated at Last. It is their ninth album (and fourteenth overall, if you count the albums they recorded under different variations of their name), a number that’s high enough to project its own self-assuredness, conviction, and the deep stench of some folks who know what they’re doing. The opening song is “Web.” It is very, very good. Breaking it open spills out the language of Thee Oh Sees.

CRACKSHHH

At 0:00, the snare drum and cymbal are the tones telling you to turn your brain over and accept what’s coming. The song arrives, and I know it’s not a fast song, but it acts like one. That inherent urgency is Thee Oh Sees speaking their language of momentum. This is the primordial push that reveals the band’s guts. They could go fast, but the opening moment of “Web” is simply proof that they can go. And we must go along, too. Thee Oh Sees pull us in with a language of trust.

BROWW…BROWW…BROWW…BA WOMP WOMP…BROOOOW…….BROWWWW…BROWW…BROWW…BROWW…BA WOMP WOMP…BROOOOW…….BROWWWW…BROWW…BROWW…BROWW…BA WOMP WOMP…BROOOOW…….BROWWWW…BROWW…BROWW…BROWW…BA WOMP WOMP…BROOOOW…….BROWWWW…

At 0:01, 0:00 makes good on its promise, and we’re off. Bass and guitar fall at the same time, and the guitar keeps a riff alive. It climbs and falls while the bass anchors, pedaling the same note even as the guitar changes.

The pedal is a move of brilliance, gluing together unstoppable songs throughout Earth’s history, be it the Electric Motown Funk, the British Beatles Funk, or the Whispered Yo La Tengo Funk. No matter where it lives, the pedal — the relentless repetition of one note or pattern, usually by the bass, regardless of the chord progression — simultaneously holds a moment together while also allowing for more change to breathe on top of it. Whatever is placed above, the continual root of the pedal gives notice and context. That change would feel disruptive if the bass followed the guitar. Chords and melodies are given new meaning in the holy context of the refusal of one instrument to change. And with that pedaling bass, Thee Oh Sees reveal their language of repetition. Their fluency of patience. It plays essentially with momentum. And it carries. It is the root of, and tether to, the source; it is a direct gateway to the truth, and it is universal and was always that way even before someone wearing glasses moved it away from the bass guitar and called it a “drone.”

With that, our ears don’t care to identify what’s not there, because we are being swept off and nurtured by what is there.

The riff repeats four times, and that’s just fine by me. The bass continues, the guitars adjust, the drums sneakily develop, and we move and we move and we move. The 1:16 mark comes and we are now cruising and welcomed to the newness by John Dwyer’s voice. We rode this far on the back of trust. The song evolved as the bass remained the same. We are OK and happier for it. Thee Oh Sees speak a language of courtesy.

The human voice sings and it is high in pitch but not grating, calming but not lazy, and it balances the necessities of beauty and urgency. Momentum, patience, repetition, and courtesy soar through the verse. The chorus has no words — instead, it is translated into the volumed speech of wily electric guitar and is announced by a gigantic exclamation point following an ellipsis: Dwyer’s voice ringing out…

WOO!

At 1:45, the WOO! provides, and shoves with, electricity. We’re living inside the chorus.

Another verse happens, and the momentum is undeniable. A second WOO! pushes again, like whatever you call the thing a Hot Wheels car goes through with the rubber lateral wheels that keep the car moving. You know what I’m talking about. Like that. The WOO! is like that. WOO! is the universal word that translates into “I am having a good time.” This appears to be entirely true. Thee Oh Sees blast a language of honesty.

The WOO! bounces across the landscape of the song, and that’s largely thanks to the analog delay, a possibly more technical but equally magnificent word in this band’s dictionary of abilities. I know it’s a noun, but it acts like a verb. As the song careens, this textbook onomatopoeia carries on past its initial attack until it bleeds into the essence of whatever keeps happening in the chorus that gives us life. It probably has something to do with the momentum that’s keeping us safe throughout all of this. The word “delay” is deceiving. The technique is almost always utilized not to make you wait, but to in fact give you more. To extend and prolong.

So, this sound from the throat — and also likely from the toes — fires a flame into the chorus and it comes back again and again, all within this first song. If this first song is your first song to hear from Thee Oh Sees, the WOO! lets you know that you’re invited.

If the WOO! doesn’t say all that needs to be said in the language of invitation, I don’t know what will. And you might have to settle for just the WOO! — because the delay on the vocals is mixed pretty high, and it’s hard to understand the lyrics. I think something about Saturday. Who cares, we’re already in it. We’re already on board. And on board we stay, trusted and cared for and thrown about — but the walls are padded by the pedaling bass. (It never stops!) BADABADABA at 4:55 and the song is concluded by the final rhythmic statement. But there’s a whole record left to listen to, and there’s nowhere left to move but forward. This train is sometimes heavy and sometimes loud and sometimes fast, but don’t think for one second that you’re not welcome aboard. You are. All aboard? WOO-WOO!

Adam Schatz is a musician. His band Landlady has just released the album Upright Behavior on the Hometapes record label. His saxophone and keyboard sounds have appeared on albums by Vampire Weekend, Those Darlins, Hospitality, Sleigh Bells and Quilt. His previous published works consist solely of a column about donuts and not-donuts for Brightest Young Things. You can follow him on Twitter here and hear Landlady here. (Photo credit: Sasha Arutyunova.)