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When OCS originated in 1997, it was the music of a goblin. That’s what John Dwyer recently likened his younger self to on Marc Maron’s “WTF?” podcast, explaining how all the recreational drugs he took alongside his singing-saw-playing friend Patrick Mullins—with the curious goal of creating “the quietest songs we could”—would render him constantly breathing through his mouth. Yes, the writhing, bug-eyed garage-rock band known most frequently as Thee Oh Sees was for many early years a whispering freak-folk expedition. Plenty of other things have since changed for Dwyer. His track record at that time told a story of several diverse endeavors rather than the one of an exhaustingly prolific primary project, for which he’s now known. And, as the 43-year-old will tell you today, he’s dialed back his drugs.
For the project’s 20th LP in 20 years (and the 100th album for Dwyer’s own Castle Face Records), he returns to both its original name stylization and restrained aura for the first time in over a decade. Memory of a Cut Off Head essentially leaves the amps at home. Instead, it reverses hard into baroque, acoustic, and otherwise more delicate songs of a softer, slower psychedelic vein. The intensity, much like the spelling, is reduced by 70%.
If Memory is another new page for OCS, it is the special-thanks page. Coming amid a fast-as-ever recording clip—that’s four Dwyer LPs in 16 months, a merciless pace even for him—Memory honors the project’s history. It acknowledges strains of folk music that are less obviously fundamental to shaping the wilder iterations of Thee Oh Sees, and it honors some of the people who helped shape their store. There are horn arrangements by his friend and pupil Mikal Cronin. Memory also marks the returns of Mullins on singing saw and singer/keyboardist Brigid Dawson, the closest complementing presence Dwyer has ever had in the band. The album is as much hers as it is his, and she takes the reins on its superior second half.