Sometime in the early 2000s, back when I was fat (but not so fat that I couldn’t walk up some stairs) I saw a band called the Coachwhips play Cardiff. The room, in an Irish-and-they-won’t-let-you-forget-it pub called Dempsey’s1 is, sonically speaking, bullshit, but you can still see a good show there if a reasonable amount of humans turn up and agree to enjoy themselves. It was… a lovely evening but my main memory, because I’m a cynical and easily distracted dolt, is of people with guitars jumping on tables which, although gymnastically impressive, resembled at times a kind of detuned parkour for the toilet circuit crowd.2
This passes for an introduction because it turns out that the singer-guitar player of that band, John Dwyer, is the guy who does most of the guy-ing for Thee Oh Sees, a band I only recently became acquainted with on the highly unusual basis of liking one of their songs and then, even more unusually, seeking out the album that it was taken from. This record, their 714th3, is that album. It is 31 minutes long and I like it quite a bit. I’m going to try and explain why but, and I apologise for this in advance, I’ll probably end up talking about the beautiful new cats who squeaked and scurried into our home just two days ago, taking up our lives with their Olympic-level cuteness4. All good? Excellent. Oh, and for those who don’t know: the domestic “cat” is a member of the felidae family (more specifically, a felinae); 31 minutes is a perfectly sufficient time within which to fall in love, should you be so inclined; and an album is a musical recording historically available in a number of formats, all of which will be outlawed by 2018.
If I were to simply tell you about this album I’d be forced to use words like “riff,” “part” and “Perry Farrell being held at gunpoint in an echoing well” so I won’t. Luminescent is a word I would never write under any circumstances5. I could describe the instruments, if you like, but I’d rather not. Guitar, y’know, bass, some ZX Spectrum6 loading noises, a little bassoon (I’ve no idea if it is a bassoon that makes an appearance on the
luminous gorgeous closer “The Lens,” to be honest, but it is indisputably the best-named of all the woodwind instruments), people’s voices, drums, silence, ennui, triumph. What do the drums sound like, you ask? Drums, I say. Like they were recorded or played or programmed by somebody who cared about them deeply. Like real, living artificial things pressed into a .wav file which sits, virtually, in front of me daring… just hold on a moment. The black kitten, whom we’re thinking of calling Genghis (my wife is coming around to the idea, having trialed the name in a number of accents and various states of imagined exasperation) is attacking my headphone lead and I need to have a quiet word with his tiny, precious face. He was an orphan until recently (still is, I suppose) so I’ll go easy. Ah, it’s OK, he’s asleep now. All before the end of the second song7.
Without reading the liner notes (does anybody read the liner notes?8) I can be pretty sure that Butch Vig wasn’t involved in the production of this record. How can I tell that? Well, because instruments (usually the guitar, screeching drunkenly at its own balls) often appear at the (classically) “wrong” volume, which is a very good thing indeed (I was going to put that in capitals but lost heart) whilst the singing, always there, cares not a fuck about assuming the expected front-and-centre position. I value and applaud that, but sometimes wish I could turn it up and decipher it a little more (sorry!). Nobody has designed this record for radio (although I can imagine “The Lens” making a happy journey there, with its smooth psychedelia) and I applaud them for it. It’s an ugly sham, this notion that pop music needs to be spoon-fed to people over clean, neutered instrumentation; noise, non-noise and melody need not be mutually exclusive. Fuck that. Should not be. And yes, POP MUSIC, of which this is some and plenty. Noise rock? Do one. Hell, do two, just do it away from me. If it has a melody then it’s pop music. I … suggest9.
We can’t think of a name for the girl kitten. It’s tough. Susan? Nah. That’s my cousin’s name. I’ve always wanted to name a thing after a character in Catch 22. Hungry Joe fought a cat but he wouldn’t fight this one — he’d marry it10. Right. “Penetrating Eye” is a great song. If I were a proper music critic I’d pull you in/away with an analogy but trust me, it’s a great song, don’t listen to those pricks. “The King’s Noise” is a great song too. It stops and starts in ways which are brilliant but not so self-conscious as to inspire loathing. I suggest you listen to them — that’s the beauty of the internet. Also, live-tweeting TV programmes.
Last week I had no idea I was going to meet this album. It’s very good. It is, for better or worse (but emphatically the former) absolutely itself. The best moments inspire (this is what good music does to me, I am incredibly self-centred) and the less-best are probably heading that way as well, subtle and sly in their graces. The boy-who-may-be-called-Genghis just knocked over a microphone stand during the song “Camera (Queer Sound),” which is a little too much of a pastiche for my chronically compressed tastes but, I’m choosing to guess, his favourite. Myself, I’m preparing kitten milk formula (served at 38 degrees C — body temperature) and planning on asking Twitter what album of Thee Oh Sees I should buy next, ignoring whatever it tells me11, then asking my friends Matt & Ashli instead.
1. Pro tip, kids: go before you go.
2. And I say that with no aspect of superiority. Myself, I only know the toilet circuit crowd. I am an enthusiastic expert on their moves and misshapes.
4. And I am not a cat person, as such. I mean, I love my cats, but a lot of them are just dicks.
5. Except to point out the same.
6. This is a home computer we had in the UK in the ’80s. It had rubber keys and smelled of Filofaxes. When you loaded games the tape recorder shrieked in a high-pitched symphony of clipped electronic signals.
7. Song. Always song.
8. This is a rhetorical question. I know they do because everybody I/we have forgotten to put on there has noticed and e-mailed me pissily within four minutes of a record being released. I don’t blame them, either.
9. No, INSIST. But I am always wrong.
10. I am talking about characters from classic novels like real writers do. In theory, at least.
11. Of course I won’t ignore you, Twitter. You’re OK, y’know?
p.s. Because I’m a professional (well, I’m hopefully getting paid for this) I read the Pitchfork review, which is an actual review as opposed to whatever this was. Anyway, it includes the sentence “And despite its titular allusion to every brostepper’s favorite sound, Drop actually splits the difference between the Who’s maximum r&b and the Stooges’ Raw Power.” Stay in school, kids. One that’s open.