OCS - Memory Of A Cut Off Head

by Kyle Kersey Rating:6 Release Date:2017-11-17
OCS - Memory Of A Cut Off Head
OCS - Memory Of A Cut Off Head

Whenever I pick up a new album to review (does anyone else miss the days of actually picking up physical copies of music?), I do my best to go through the artist’s back catalogue, a crash course of sorts to get some context on the influences and musical evolution behind a record. After all, no music exists in a vacuum.

This is especially true of OCS, or Oh Sees, or The Oh Sees, or Thee Oh Sees. Frontman John Dwyer has cycled through so many variations on the name that part of me wants to avoid mentioning it altogether and simply refer to it as “the band”. Since releasing their debut album, 1 (at least there’s no ambiguity towards chronology), under the OCS namesake in 2004, Dwyer and his revolving door of band mates have managed to drop a ludicrous nineteen more records. When he isn’t touring or in studio, he’s running Castle Face Records, a tour de force amongst independent rock labels.  

In a way, Memory Of A Cut Off Head plays as an extension of the band’s August release, Orc, though it’s devoid of the thunderous distorted jams that have made them a garage rock staple. In their place are lush string arrangements over 60’s inspired folk songwriting. “The Chopping Block” even follows the rhythmic cadence of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, to the point where the line “ground control to Major Tom” fits perfectly over the acoustic instrumental. Meanwhile, “Lift A Finger” rides a triumphant swing groove right out the playbook of early 70’s Chicago. It’s a sonic shift signaled by both the official return of keyboardist Brigid Dawson and the OCS namesake.

Of course, Dawson never truly left the band, appearing as a guest vocalist on their more recent albums. Per usual, Dawson’s falsetto vocals compliment Dwyer’s array of ghoulish voices. “On and On Corridor” finds Dawson adding in some witchy vibrato overtop Dwyer’s goblin-like vocal strains, making for a rather unsettling tag team.

And indeed, this is a somewhat unsettling album, where the world is ruled by “tyrants” who have no care for those who fight and die beneath them. It’s a fantasy album of sorts; existing in a universe not too different from middle earth, something that invariably links Memory of a Cut Off Head to Orc. Dwyer even begins the album with a somewhat whimsical statement of “Oh what a day, I lost my body”, making the title surprisingly literal.

And this shift finds OCS trending towards tighter, more defined songwriting as opposed to the extended jams that populate many of their previous releases. Dwyer’s love affair with string sections blossoms here, with the viola led arrangements acting as the glue that holds the whole thing together. They even get a track to themselves in “The Barron Sleeps and Dreams”, an instrumental where gyspy influenced viola melodies ride over plucked violins.

But while this experimentation in sound is a welcome change, I can’t help but feel somewhat indifferent about a lot of these tracks. What Dwyer often lacks in clear songwriting, he more than makes up for in energy. It’s a large part of what made A Weird Exits one of my favorite albums of last year. Forcing himself to write structured songs highlights some of his songwriting deficiencies.There’s also a bit of tonal inconsistency on the back half of the album. “Fool”, a dreamy romantic ballad, feels very out of place amongst the dark, Norse influenced concept. Meanwhile “Time Tuner” aimlessly drones on for nearly six minutes with bagpipes, strings, and some nonsensical lines chastising the character “Svengali”.

So, it’s a bit of a mixed bag then. At 43 years old and with twenty Oh Sees LPs under his belt, Dwyer doesn’t really have to prove himself. He can make what he wants, even if that means resurrecting the OCS name for a fantasy folk album. And this still sounds like an Oh Sees project with its oddball psychedelic tendencies, just without the unrelenting pace and energy. It’s a strangely enjoyable, albeit light listen that just floats around in the background.

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