He may have Ty Segall nipping at his heels, but John Dwyer still reigns supreme as modern music’s “most prolific man in rock.” New album Memory Of A Cut Off Head marks Dwyer’s second release under the(e) Oh Sees umbrella this year, while also standing as the 20th album in the project’s 20 years. Invoking the OCS moniker that’s been used when Dwyer feels like flexing his mellower, acoustic muscles (see Songs About Death and Dying. Vol. 3 and 2) one would expect to hear the freak-folk, homey recordings synonymous with it. Instead Dwyer throws a curveball.
Pretty and understated throughout, with thoughtful string and horn arrangements courtesy of Dwyer associates Heather Lockie and Mikal Cronin, Head commutes between pastoral, homestead-y compositions that sound like landscape paintings, and the dreamy baroque-pop of 1960s vanguards. The title track, with its jazzy shuffle, acoustic guitar and gentle, arcadian strings has the effect of riding on a train through the countryside—rolling hills and blonde fields passing by your window. Before you know it, you’ve arrived at “Remote Viewer,” the harpsichord, plucked violins and stately vocals invoking an understated style of chamber-pop that’s more winking Kinks than dramatic Walker Brothers.
Fans of longtime collaborator Brigid Dawson will be pleased to hear her soothing voice harmonizing with Dwyer’s, but also front and center on “Time Tuner,” “Lift A Finger” and the Dawson-penned “The Fool.” “Every time you drive away/I know you won’t be true,” she sings, subdued strings and some steadfast flutes the only accompaniment to her tale of a muse-chasing man.
A far cry from the monstrous drums, animalistic growling, and proto-metal of this summer’s Orc, Head is characterized by breathy singing, brush-heavy drums and just enough sprinkles of Dwyer weirdness to coalesce it amongst his hefty discography—the electronic drones, clicks, and warbles that make up the second half of “The Baron Sleeps And Dreams,” or the glitchy strings, cyclical swell and “Svengali, no no” chanting that make-up the mystifying “Time Tuner.”
Tonally, it stays pretty horizontal, as if someone put a red, “do-not-cross” line on the volume knob —a significant departure from the all-out, crank it to 11, audio assault that Dwyer usually unleashes. When the energy does spike, it’s subtle, residing in the playful “come on, come on, come on” and gently propulsive drums of the vaguely nostalgic “On And On Corridor,” the high strings and slight British accent Dwyer affects for poppy “The Chopping Block” or the melancholy bounce of closer the very retro “Lift A Finger.” Depending on where you fall on a scale from one to hardcore fan, this creates either a masterful, cohesive soundscape—or a monotonous departure from the frenzied, fuzzed-out energy of Dwyer’s most well-known songs. Luckily, if you fall into the latter category, OCS, Oh Sees, Thee Oh Sees, or whatever the hell else he decides to call himself, is probably working on three new albums as we speak.