Thee Oh Sees: Live In San Francisco

Thee Oh Sees: Live In San Francisco

Probably the best live Thee Oh Sees document we’re likely to ever get.

Thee Oh Sees: Live In San Francisco

3.75 / 5

Thee Oh Sees are one of the best live rock bands in America, and Live In San Francisco is their definitive onstage document so far. Fans might complain that they didn’t select their best songs, or that their current lineup is less than definitive. These are both valid points; a live album from their Carrion Crawler/The Dream era five years ago would have probably been superior in terms of both instrumental performance and material, and few fans would consider their current lineup to be among their best. The same can be said of their last album, 2015’s Mutilator Defeated At Last, from which four of these songs were sourced. But Live In San Francisco so deftly captures everything that makes a Thee Oh Sees concert an experience that it’s hard to complain.

Most contemporary garage rock bands trade in average-Joe appeal. If they’re not wise-cracking at the crowd, they’re dressed in some sort of kitschy attire that makes us take them just a little less seriously. Thee Oh Sees, by contrast, are stern and professional. Sure, they swill beer onstage, and singer/guitarist/bandleader John Dwyer appears to be puking on the cover. But they don’t talk to the crowd or crowd-surf or play tossed-off joke covers. Rather, they stare you down and bludgeon you into submission. Live In San Francisco is more bracing than any of their studio albums, and it’s easy to see why they’re capable of instilling such awe in their audience.

It’s this intensity that distinguishes the live cuts here from their studio counterparts, which they more or less mimic otherwise. There’s more guitar screech than there is on the records; Dwyer’s falsetto is cruder than usual, and there are moments where he can’t seem to contain his excitement. His voice is often buried in the mix on Thee Oh Sees’ albums; here, it stands naked. It’s hard to tell what he’s saying most of the time, and he sounds more like a cartoon character than a human being (Peter Griffin often comes to mind), but this only makes the band sound even cooler and more detached.

Thee Oh Sees’ great trick is their use of soft-loud dynamics. Typically, during the soft part, the rhythm section will play a grounding groove as Dwyer and plays a few spacey guitar fills. Then Dwyer will usually shout “woo!,” the guitars come in, and all pandemonium breaks loose. As with EDM and its drops, Thee Oh Sees’ use of alternating dynamics serves mostly to drive the audience to breaking point. It’s a good trick, too. But Live In San Francisco makes it glaringly obvious just how formulaic their approach is. On record, they space the soft-loud songs with enough all-soft or all-loud songs. Here, nearly every song follows the same dynamic structure, and after six or seven tracks, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been listening to different variations on the same song.

Another issue is the length. Live In San Francisco is about the length of a Thee Oh Sees concert, but given that it’s edited together from several shows, there’s no reason a few of those soft-loud songs couldn’t have been pruned (I nominate “Web” and “Man In A Suitcase”). Thee Oh Sees albums rarely breach three-quarters of an hour, but Live At San Francisco stretches to a sprawling 58, fifteen taken up by Carrion Crawler/The Dream cut “Contraption.” The presence of “Contraption” isn’t much of a problem, as it fades into ambient background noise after six minutes or so. It’s the shorter songs at the beginning that perhaps take up too much space.

But – bootlegs aside – this is probably the best live Thee Oh Sees document we’re likely to ever get. The band seems to have stagnated lately, slowing their insanely prolific pace and releasing albums that more or less sound identical. It’s hard to say whether or not they’re running out of ideas, but it’s likely their most enduring work will remain the stuff they recorded between Castlemania and Floating Coffin earlier this decade. Despite that, they’re still in the highest caliber of American rock bands, live or in the studio, and Live In San Francisco proves as much.

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