It’s been nearly 13 years since Trail of Dead’s landmark 2002 album Source Tags and …
What’s in a name? For OCS, FKA Oh Sees, FKA Thee Oh Sees (and, if we’re being completists, a few more FKAs as well), a name is as much an identifier as it is an expectation-setting tool. Having just released Orc in August 2017 as Oh Sees, founder and core member John Dwyer turned around and dropped Memory of a Cut Off Head in November under one of the band’s original monikers: OCS.
The name change signals a return to the group’s lo-fi, psychedelic sensibilities from the early albums like The Cool Death of Island Raiders and Sucks Blood, and the experimental, acoustically oriented 34 Reasons Why Life Goes on Without You. As with previous eras within the band, Memory of a Cut Off Head is several steps removed from the garage rock and punk flavors of Thee Oh Sees projects. It is a folky album that finds Dwyer looking to create mellow tapestries, rather than static-y sledgehammers.
Dwyer is rejoined by his former bandmate, Brigid Dawson, whose back-up vocals often serve as an edge-sanding counterbalances to Dwyer’s throughout the album. Album-opener “Memory of a Cut Off Head” is a sonic tone-setter, with a bouncy snare tap and ‘60s-style trippy juxtaposition of a folk duet singing from the perspective of a cut off head. “Neighbor to None” is positively gentle in its mien, with Dwyer whisper-singing and Dawson finding a vocal lightness to dance an octave above. Not-quite-treacly strings provide a viscous accompaniment to a finger-picked guitar. “The Fool,” the album’s second single, features Dawson on lead vocals exclusively, and marks a turning point where her vocals take over the lead role for the remainder of the album (with the exception of the Bowie-esque “The Chopping Block”).
By the time we’ve hit the final track, “Lift a Finger,” we’ve come full circle back to the earlier psych-folk tones. It rambles with a jaunty step amid Dawson’s somewhat matter-of-fact, albeit velvety delivery. Every now and then you can pick out slightly (intentionally) discordant tones between the flute, vocals and bass, which give the track a topsy-turvy, surreal flow.
Putting Memory of a Cut Off Head into the context of earlier work and the frequent transitional phases of Dwyer, it really is a lovely album, with consistent musicality and quirky little moments that remind you who is actually in charge of the experience (hint: it’s not you).