September 9, 2013

hands on the controlsDouglas Martin stays trippy.

It’s a question that hasn’t been raised with any sort of deep thought, even in the garage-punk circles of Ye Olde Internet. Which of the million bands John Dwyer has been in is the greatest? It’s because everybody knows the answer: Thee Oh Sees would stand to win that vote by a landslide.

With an endless reserve of energy, cracked songs about death and decay, and an increased dedication to making the flute a viable psych-rock instrument again, there’s no ambiguity as to why the world of mainstream-indie and music festival promoters have taken such a liking to the San Francisco-based group. Just listen to Help, Dog Poison, Warm Slime, or Castlemania. Go to one of their live shows and risk getting kicked in the face by a crowd-surfer. The relentless amount of work Dwyer has done with and for Thee Oh Sees quickly suggests an option can be both the most popular and the best.

But that leads us to a question that goes deeper into Dwyer’s discography: Which band would make the number two spot? Pink and Brown? The Hospitals? There’s hardly a truly bad choice in the bunch. Unfortunately, that question’s answer is as easy as the first. If Thee Oh Sees hadn’t existed, Coachwhips’ name would be etched in stone as John Dwyer’s greatest band. (For reference, check out the excellent Bangers Versus Fuckers.) And with the re-release of their auspicious debut album, Hands on the Controls (through Castle Face Records, owned in part by, you guessed it, Dwyer himself), Coachwhips receive a new chance to make an impression on a recently invigorated garage-punk landscape, a new opportunity to terrorize baby garage-punks (and posers) who missed them the first time around.

The very idea of ranking Dwyer’s bands would suggest Coachwhips are not as good as Thee Oh Sees, when the truth is they’re not better or worse than one another, just different. If anything, the former is less polished than the latter, a way to provide Oblivians-like fury for those who normally avoid music this unruly. Coachwhips songs are all caveman stomp and blaring, clunky riffs, conjuring a blend of dust bowl rock ‘n roll and cheap brown acid. The frenzy of “These Things Belong to Somebody” sounds exactly like a bad trip just waiting to happen.

If anything, Coachwhips are an evil twin of their more popular successor, containing much of the same mangled guitar work that makes Thee Oh Sees such a quintessential American rock ‘n roll band. There’s no denying Dwyer is as distinctive a guitarist as they come, and songs like “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!” and “Wheelchair” sound like they could have existed as pummeling Oh Sees demos. Dwyer has never strayed from the macabre in his songwriting, but the “evil” part of this equation comes from the nihilism of Coachwhips’ guitar attack and punk song titles like “That Bitch is Gonna End Up Dead” and “Look Into My Eyes When I Come.”

In the 19 songs and 32 minutes of the original version of Hands on the Controls, Coachwhips serve up a blistering palate of deranged garage-punk, and only the halfway-balladry of “Mary Ann” and the weird sludgefeast of “The Ride” provide any sort of breather from the blitzkrieg. The earlier stages of John Dwyer’s songwriting — before working with more well-rehearsed, more sonically refined bands — finds the garage-punk hero breathing heavily in between verses and shouting unintelligible lyrics in pursuit of scuzzier, less mannered days.

When Hands on the Controls dropped over a decade ago, there was a void left by the wild garage-punk kings of the 80’s and 90’s like the Oblivians and the Gories and had yet to be populated by the more versatile new guard (most of those bands being friends of Thee Oh Sees). Now serves as just an opportune time as any to spray beer all over the place in observance of the history of modern American garage-punk. In addition to being one its top-tier artists and curators, John Dwyer serves as one of the genre’s greatest preservers of its history.

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