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The Ohsees - The Cool Death of Island Raiders

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Artist: The Ohsees

Album: The Cool Death of Island Raiders

Label: Narnack

Review date: Jul. 12, 2006

Strange to say, the Ohsees were a band I liked without ever thinking they were very good. They had a great sound – an ephemeral, reverb-laden murk haunted by John Dwyer’s uneasy tales of death and his child-like wail – but the songs themselves often dragged. And as cohesive as they sounded, everything they did sounded the same. On The Cool Death of Island Raiders, they’ve stepped up their production, enlisting TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek to work the board, and gathered a small entourage to add saxophone, flute, violin and backup vocals to the album. For a band so reliant upon simple but evocative recording techniques, this kind of shift to higher fidelity is difficult to do well. Spending time in a proper studio opens up new possibilities in terms of direction and sound, but it requires them to reevaluate what they’re capable of with more space and different footholds. That bands often misread their own strengths and weaknesses and blow it in the studio is warning enough to not fix what isn’t broken, but after three albums of tape hiss and reverb, the Ohsees sounded as if they were reaching the limits of what they could do well within their lo-fi parameters.

These things in mind, The Cool Death of Island Raiders is a step forward for the Ohsees, though – if I’m figuring their ambitions correctly – they still have a ways to go. Just as 3 & 4 drew a better balance of haunted noise to song craft than 2, Cool Death refines their engaging, stripped-down style with detailed production. Their music was always filled with dark corners and unsettling shadows, but those are now inhabited by weird sonic snippets. The production adds an unusual sparkle, too, an uneasy brightness. But the problem of consistent songwriting is still present, too; nothing here falls totally flat, but the record is trying in places, an annoyance compounded by the fact that the great songs this time around are really great.

The album begins and ends at its highest points. Opener, “The Gilded Cunt,” is a ray of dusty sunlight falling through a junk shop window; the simple, sweet harmonies of the chorus float hazily above a murky clatter and the lyrics are somehow tender, nonsensical and abrasive at the same time. The closer, “You Oughta Go Home,” is another wonder. Their palette is widest here, a virtue of the cleaner production. Chiming bells drift in and out, and drummer Patrick Mullins’ singing saw is left untouched by its usual electronic guises. “The Dumb Drums” and “Losers In The Sun” are also highlights.

The songs that don’t work orbit irregularly around the ones that do; they putter along with only a few pistons firing, never quite picking up the momentum to carry them all the way through. The two drone pieces – one by Dwyer, one by Mullins – drag the album down. They can stand on their own for what they are, but they’re out of place on an album of pop songs; together they take up close to a third of the album’s length.

The Cool Death of Island Raiders shows the Ohsees reaching some unexpected and noteworthy highs, but isn’t the great album it suggests they’re capable of making. They’ve mapped a steady, if unassuming, progress so far; the next step is consistency.

By Raf Spielman

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