Review: Oh Sees ‘Face Stabber’
Words by GREG LYTMER
Robert Pollard, legendarily prolific solo artist and leader of Guided By Voices, adheres to the idea that what his music is made up of is the four P’s: pop, prog, punk, and psychedelic. Though the new Oh Sees album, Face Stabber, isn’t made up of just these four elements, it does bring to mind how perfectly they too have synthesized these seemingly contradictory styles. Sure, it made perfect sense when circa 2009 Oh Sees, known then as Thee Oh Sees, started to add krautrock to their witches’ brew of garage rock, psychedelia, psych-folk, and noise. But can punk and prog really coexist, even flourish? With Face Stabber, the Oh Sees answer in the affirmative while simultaneously adding ambient, jam, jazz, and even a bit of funk to their ingredients list. Somehow, it all holds together. Somehow, despite being a double album, it never overstays its welcome. Somehow, it works just as well listened to in one sitting on headphones as it does in the car, or my personal favorite, on the stereo at home, with breaks to get up and flip the record over, perhaps also giving you a chance to go crack open another beer or take a couple bong rips. Yeah, it’s that kind of album. It’s a stoner nerd album made by and for stoner nerds.
There are a few other good ways to summarize Face Stabber:
1) It’s the best album of 1978 that was lost to time and finally released in 2019.
2) Mathematically, it can be formulated as (Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew + Hawkwind’s Space Ritual + CAN’s Soon Over Babaluma + The Stooges’ Raw Power + King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues In Aspic + Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats).
3) It retroactively makes Smote Reverser, while still a great record, feel like a trial run. I thought Smote was the start of the new era, but no, Face Stabber is the true new beginning. To use another band as an example, I’m sure you’d say you like Sister by Sonic Youth, but do you listen to it or the follow-up Daydream Nation more often? Did Sister or Daydream signal a new direction for the band?
4) If it were a self-titled album, no one would bat an eye. There’s a certain implication to a band doing a self-titled album so many years into their career, and if you know what I’m talking about, you understand how it works in this case.
Anyway, you may have gotten the impression from the other reviews of the album out there, and from my formula above, that face Stabber is a “whole is lesser than the sum of its influences.” I always come away from each new Parquet Courts album feeling this way. You can always play spot-the-influences with their songs, and everything about their sound and discography feels a little too self-aware and manufactured. So let me make it clear that Face Stabber is wholly an Oh Sees record and a “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” situation instead. It has some of their heaviest songs ever and some of their jammiest/jazziest too. Most of the songs have surprisingly catchy melodies or hooks in them for what feels like the first time ever. If you’ve always wondered why you don’t find yourself humming Oh Sees songs as often as other bands this is exactly why. This is what the pop part of Robert Pollard’s four P’s brings to bands like Guided By Voices and Oh Sees. They’ll never write songs that are huge commercial hits, but they do have some catchy, hooky songs, even at their weirdest.
And to be sure, Face Stabber gets weird. It makes me think of the episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, ‘The Gang Gives Frank An Intervention’, where the character Frank Reynolds says something like, “I don’t know how many years I got left, so I’m gonna get real weird with it.” I mean, you can totally picture John Dwyer drinking wine out of a can while saying the “Where is that cup of tea?” bit on album closer ‘Henchlock.’ Other weirdness abounds, from the odd squeaky toy opening of ‘The Daily Heavy’ to the perfect videogame title screen song that isn’t from a videogame (the proggy organ opening of ‘Scutum & Scorpius’), to the “I’m a nerd and I’m owning it” vibe Oh Sees have been showcasing for a few albums now, what with all the ’70s prog rock, Dungeons & Dragons, RPG aesthetics in their album covers, song titles, album titles, and music videos. I mean, come on – they hired a Magic: The Gathering card artist to do the Smote Reverser cover, and Face Stabber’s cover is an edit of a piece by legendary fantasy artist Frank Frazetta.
I suspect that, much like its predecessor, Face Stabber will be a love it or hate it release. I don’t understand why, because it’s flat-out better than Smote Reverser. It has something for every kind of Oh Sees fan… well, except for the psych-folk holdouts. Anyway, it has it all: short/fast/loud songs (‘Heartworm’ could easily pass for a Coachwhips song), songs good for skating or surfing to (‘S.S. Luker’s Mom’), hypnotic, propulsive kraut-garage jams (‘The Daily Heavy’ is a modern version of ‘I Come From The Mountain’ from Thee Oh Sees’ Floating Coffin), cool ass guitar and keyboard effects, Dwyer’s weird vocal tics and yelps, etcetera. To this we also add some new delights, like the ambient ‘Captain Loosely’, increasingly prevalent use of saxophones (Dwyer and guest Brad Caulkins both play saxophones on the album!), and Phish-like keyboard playing (seriously, the proggy organ intro to ‘Scutum & Scorpius’ is straight out of their playbook, like the intro to Phish‘s ‘You Enjoy Myself’).
That’s a lot to unpack and digest, because there is a lot to unpack and digest on Face Stabber. What holds it together and makes it work, justifying its double album runtime in the process, is the pacing and the wealth of ideas. Face Stabber has the best song order of any Oh Sees album in the modern era. It changes styles and gives you breathers at just the right times—the title track busts through two or three songs worth of riffs before it collapses into a field recording, while ‘Captain Loosely’ functions as a rest stop after three songs in a row of high energy barnstormers, letting your heart rate come down just enough to match the pulse of the following epic jam ‘Henchlock.’
I’ve written before about how Oh Sees’ long songs don’t always have enough ideas, excellent solos or group improvisation to justify their lengths. ‘Anthemic Aggressor’ is the biggest culprit, too spastic and unfocused, and the soloing on it is unremarkable. John Dwyer’s guitar solos served their purpose on older albums but they don’t stand up to any comparisons of similar bands, past and present. It often feels like he’s doing a solo because it’s expected, not because he has anything interesting to play. It’s noodling, plain and simple. You see this pejorative term, ‘noodling’, used a lot in jazz and jam band reviews to refer to boring, lifeless solos or gratuitous improvisations. ‘Anthemic Aggressor’ sounds like noodling, ‘Henchlock’ and ‘Scutum & Scorpius’ do not. Dwyer has gotten much better as a soloist and bandleader, otherwise, we’d just have another Smote Reverser on our hands. I could see Phish covering ‘Scutum & Scorpius’, and when the percussion breakdowns on ‘The Experimenter’ happen, I can’t help but think of Fela Kuti or the better versions of the ‘Drums’ section of Grateful Dead shows. There’s far more development and dynamics to Oh Sees long jams now, and their live sets are continuing to showcase this side of the band.
I would encourage everyone to give this song a listen on headphones and focus on each instrument in separation. Much like how the dual drummer set-up and rhythm section on Bitches Brew serves as the solid earthy groove foundation for the soloists to fly off of into volcanos, oceanic depths, and even outer space from, the two drummers and bassist of Oh Sees lay down a similar locked-in groove bedrock, playing off of the soloists and each other. On headphones, you can really pick out the two drummers and see how often they’re in sync or doing slightly different fills and accents. Sure, previous Oh Sees lineups also featured talented musicians, but there’s no arguing that this current incarnation has the best in terms of technical skill and musical ideas. I loved Brigid Dawson on keyboards yet compared to how much Tomas Dolas has brought to Oh Sees in only two albums, it’s no contest. I mean, who is better in terms of pure musicianship: The Grateful Dead’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan or Keith Godchaux? I rest my case.
So, is Face Stabber the band’s masterpiece, as some have suggested? Only time can truly give us the answer, although…well, hell, I’ll say this much. Face Stabber absolutely is the band’s most mature and focused record. This doesn’t mean it’s polished or boring or pop-orientated. Far from it. What it does mean is that you can listen to the album over and over, and it never gets dull or repetitive. I don’t skip any of the songs, even the long ones. It’s also the perfect album to listen to while watching a visualizer in iTunes or VLC or what have you. But I digress. Ultimately, it comes down to this. If you didn’t like Smote Reverser, you may like Face Stabber slightly more, but you still won’t like it. If you liked Smote Reverser or even loved it, you’ll like or love Face Stabber even more. It may not end up being your favorite Oh Sees album, though it is their most consistent and consistently excellent album. While Face Stabber is also the culmination of several albums of progress and ideas, that doesn’t mean it replaces or nullifies the greatness of those previous albums. So, yes, you can view it as a culmination, but I prefer to view it as the true beginning of the new era. To use the band’s own words, Face Stabber is an odd entrancing, not a weird exiting.