The Oh Sees are one of those bands that, from a distance, seem nearly impossible to latch onto. They have all the markings of being difficult, both for casual fans as well as their diehard supporters. They’re prone to changing their name, having done so a handful of times, often to mark a musical evolution, but not always. Even then, their albums are often amalgams of different sonic endpoints, stitching together garage, punk, psych, prog, folk, and pop in whatever ways they see fit. They’re notably prolific, having released 20 albums since forming in 2003, with their twenty-first, Smote Reverser, due August 17. But it’s by getting up close to them, and embracing that the Oh Sees are not a band in the traditional sense of the word, that everything falls into place.
Formed in 1997 by John Dwyer, the band’s guitarist, vocalist, and sole constant member, Oh Sees started out as Orinoka Crash Suite, a nom de plume for Dwyer’s solo material. Though he seeded only a few tracks to compilations originally, in 2003, he’d change the name to OCS and use it as an outlet for his experimental home recordings. Given Dwyer’s main focuses being the garage-punk band Coachwhips and the Locust-like Pink and Brown, it was easy to see OCS as ancillary. These first few OCS releases fit with the emerging freak-folk scene, but the material was slight, and it was only once Dwyer’s main bands packed it in that the Oh Sees would start in earnest. By bringing in Brigid Dawson as a vocalist-keyboardist and Petey Dammit on both guitar and bass, Dwyer had found collaborators that brought out his best tendencies and would serve as necessary foils as the years went on. It was then that they started playing around with the Oh Sees moniker, throwing a The or Thee in front of it, or just pushing all the words together. This change also happened when the band’s sound began to coalesce. Though they’d get lumped in with other lo-fi, garage-rock bands, there was a fearlessness to change course that helped them stand out. Even now, their willingness to amble outside of genre confines, and shift up their approach, is what has kept them setting the pace in this world instead of merely falling in line.
So how does someone parse a band that has records across a few different names and numerous musical genres? With the Oh Sees, it’s about knowing that, with such a wealth of material, it’s best to match their nomadic nature and take it all as it comes. Some eras may have been more fruitful than others—though they’ve been on a hot streak for nearly five years—but each is an essential building block for what comes next. While there’s a good chance that Dwyer may already have another release or two up his sleeve we don’t know about, ones that forge some new path for the band and make this list outdated almost immediately, that’s the fun of the Oh Sees. They play by their own rules and continue to avoid conventions, making them a band that’s inviting to anyone with an interest in rock music that’s strictly for the weirdos.
The Oh Sees as Rock Gods
Though the band started off as a lo-fi, experimental freak-folk band, that is far from the best starting point with the Oh Sees. Instead, it’s best to embrace their songs that are the most riff-forward that often skirt lines around punk, metal, and anything else they can suck into their orbit. Though they’d begin to flirt with this sound in 2010 with the release of Warm Slime, it took root fully on 2013’s Floating Coffin, a fan-favorite that’s a solid, standalone entry point. But for a quick look into what the band’s spent the better part of this decade doing, the first two tracks serve as the launchpad for the Oh Sees’ modern era.
“I Come from the Mountain” and “Toe Cutter - Thumb Buster” are two of the band’s best songs, the kind that show how, even when they are writing their most straightforward rock songs, they are full with the band’s personality. The former is a manic jumble of power chords and 60s psych-rock vocal melodies, all of which open up into a dazzling guitar solo that serves as the song’s hook. On the other hand, “Toe Cutter - Thumb Buster” takes the kind of riff that would be found on an early heavy metal record and places it into a modern context, putting this dirgier composition on a laid back groove, sounding like if Can and Blue Cheer collaborated. Dwyer contorts his voice in all manner of ways, and Dammit’s frenetic performance pushes the song to the edge of collapse only to snap everything back in place.
Following Floating Coffin, Dwyer would become less shy about out-and-out rocking. 2015’s Mutilator Defeated At Last would meld his fascinations with classic psych records with his punk background, allowing him to twist his influences in captivating new ways. “Withered Hand” is a prime example, playing like a midtempo hardcore song that fits Dwyer’s savage vocal delivery. Though Dwyer had always been keen on changing his singing style from record-to-record—and sometimes song-to-song—here he’s a barrel-chested beast, setting aside his higher-pitched falsettos and going straight for the gut.
These albums set the stage for 2016’s A Weird Exits and 2017’s Orc, which saw the band’s newly minted two-drummer lineup offer their most pummeling compositions to date. Tracks like “Gelatinous Cube” and “The Static God” show a band that’s become not only more ambitious, but one that’s more capable of pushing themselves to write songs that fly in the face of the band’s original thesis. That continues even now, with songs like “Overthrown” sounding like if Judas Priest dropped acid when writing Screaming for Vengeance.
Playlist: “Toe Cutter - Thumb Buster” / “Withered Hand” / “I Come From the Mountain” / “The Dream” / “Overthrown” / “The Static God” / “Animated Violence” / “Ticklish Warrior” / “Gelatinous Cube”
The Oh Sees as Experimental, Freak-folk Weirdos
On the complete other end of the spectrum is the material that was largely released under the OCS moniker. Though that name was used on the release of four albums between 2003 and 2005, it’d get resuscitated in 2017 for Memory of a Cut Off Head and a live record that followed it. Much of that early work falls into the band’s quasi-folk stylings, which is incredibly lo-fi and sees Dwyer working largely alone with only a handful of exceptions. Most of this material is a bit slight, as it sounds like Dwyer playing around in his bedroom and just making sure every idea got recorded, but there are some gems in there.
While the best of this era would be captured on Thee Hounds of Foggy Notion, a live record that saw him perform with an actual band, one that would become more important to his process as the years wore on, the best of OCS material is Memory of a Cut Off Head. It’s the most realized version of the OCS sound, allowing Brigid Dawson to take a more prominent role in the proceedings. The result is an album that’s rooted in the band’s early experimental period but is actually produced well, giving the songs a lush ornamentation that features an actual string trio. “Memory of a Cut Off Head” and “The Fool” show just how potent Dwyer and Dawson were as a pair, highlighting that, while there’s a charm to tracks like “If I Had a Reason” and “So I Guess We Can’t Hang Out,” the band is better when they aren’t just reaching for the off-kilter. Playlist: “So I Guess We Can’t Hang Out” / “If I Had a Reason” / “I Need Seed” / “The Fool” / “Memory of a Cut Off Head” / “Holy Smoke” / “The Whipping Continues” / “AA Warm Breeze” / “Sucks Blood”
The Oh Sees as a Psych-pop Band
When Dwyer first shifted the band name from OCS to Oh Sees, it was a demarcation that was only subtly defined. 2007’s Sucks Blood would be the first release to show a bit of growth in the band’s intent, and the years that followed would largely see Dwyer exploring ways to group together garage, psych, and pop music into one package. The records that hit the mark the best were Castlemania and Drop, each one showing Dwyer’s innate ability to write pop music and an unending desire to distort it until it fit in with the rest of their canon. Songs like “Camera (Queer Sound)” and “The Lens” keep one foot firmly planted in pop conventions, but they take on a hazy, borderline classic-rock quality that never submits to pure nostalgia. Songs like “Candy Clock” and “Minotaur” often veer toward pastiche, showing their influences a little heavier than usual, but they always remain on the right side of things, not sounding revivalist or backwards-looking, but merely expressing the band’s ability to mine the classics for all they’re worth. In essence, these tracks function as the Oh Sees’ poppiest works, even if it’s the kind that pulls more from The Fugs than The Beatles. Playlist: “Camera (Queer Sound)” / “Candy Clock” / “The Lens” / “Minotaur” / “Sticky Hulks” / “At The End” / “Palace Doctor” / “Hang a Picture” / “Goodnight Baby” / “Put Some Reverb on My Brother”
The Oh Sees as a Prog-kraut hybrid
Around the same time that Dwyer became less shy about making the Oh Sees a full-on rock band, he also became comfortable with more freely exploring his love of prog-rock and kraut-rock. On the companion albums A Weird Exits and An Odd Entrances, Dwyer leads the band through more expansive, borderline nerdy works. The first hint that this was coming dated back to the Quadrospazzed ‘09 release, which blew up that titular song into a jam that lasted for an entire side of a record. On A Weird Exits and An Odd Entrances, as well as Orc and Smote Reverser, the band became more adept about taking their natural proclivities toward psych to their lengthy, logical endpoint.
Listening to a track like “Encrypted Bounce” or “Nervous Tech (Nah John),” it’s easy to see how the band became a living rolodex of rock history. At any given point, Dwyer can direct his cohorts into any number of styles with a simple flick of his finger, and it manifests in songs that, like their fastest, punk-indebted material, is at its best on their recent records. This is due in large part to a lineup that’s capable of pushing the material as far as it can go. Bassist Tim Hellman often anchors these sprawling pieces, and both Dan Rincon and Paul Quattrone offer memorable drum parts, each one filling in the gaps and complementing the other without ever falling off beat. Both Orc and last year’s Dead Medic EP showcased the unit’s strengths, as the band stretched out and got a little weird, taking a bit from acts like Neu! and Yes without getting sucked up their own ass. Playlist: “Encrypted Bounce” / “C” / “Jammed Exit” / “Jammed Entrance” / “Nervous Tech (Nah John)” / “Warm Slime” / “Keys to the Castle” / “Plastic Plant”
The Oh Sees' Live Material
While the Oh Sees are a very good band on record, they are an incredible one in a live setting. Thankfully, the band has a good amount of live releases, and somehow, they all feel essential. Thee Hounds of Foggy Notion captured the best representation of the band’s early material, and the two most recent live albums, both titled Live In San Francisco, are anything but perfunctory. The former puts a focus on the band’s biggest rock songs as well as their longer, jammier pieces, allowing them to go into warp speed on “The Dream” and expand “Contraption” into a stunning, 15-minute piece, while the latter is a document of the OCS shows played in support of Memory of a Cut Off Head.
It’s on these live albums that it’s easily understood how the Oh Sees merge all their assorted interests. When pulling apart the band’s discography, it can feel reductive to compartmentalize it all, especially when the band never relegates themselves into different genres. But on the Live in San Francisco releases, it’s easy to see how it all coexists, and it’s best to explore the live versions in full. At their core, the Oh Sees are built to be anything Dwyer wants them to be, but not in a dictatorial way. Their songs are joyously communal, offering a little bit of something for everyone, and framing it however they please in that given moment.