Coachwhips / Ohsees
Double Death / The Cool Death of Island Raiders
B+ / B+
hanks, we’re Coachwhips. We’ll give you all hi-fives.”
I’m looking for a point of entry. Long-time listener, first-time caller sort of deal—I’d heard of the Coachwhips, but their farewell CD/DVD Double Death is my first real experience. The Coachwhips are a presence to be sure, their mutated punk blues the stuff of 1,000 Bangs-ian wet-dreams. These love-‘em-or-hate-‘em cult acts are often pretty easy to figure out, but here I’m having trouble. Da Whips sound is so cinder-block heavy that it’s difficult to engage. There are clues: the blues struts, the disregard for vocal quality or sonic decency.
It’s still hard to get intimate with Coachwhips, though. Any sex in their blues is missionary at best, and the vocals are about as unimportant to the music as they are to the band. The DVD included here—a thrown-together orgy of live recordings from living rooms, hallways, and bars—seems to lionize frontman John Dwyer in a way that effectively sterilizes any true punk populism. His shaggy bangs, constant guitar-mugging (he poses like Chuck Berry and has his initials plastered to his axe Stevie Ray Vaughn-style), and the come-hither indie princesses that seem to flitter about the camera just behind him probably don’t help much. But, then again, there’s also the drunk fan with the audacity to scream into a drum mic that was summarily beaten by Dwyer and his kit-man. There are no stages, but there doesn’t seem to be a ton of unity or equality, either. Coachwhips could be your life; it’s just not much of a life.
Let’s not oversell these ideas, however: Dwyer’s metallic rants and abbreviated “songs” were almost certainly not designed to withstand academic brow-furrowing, even if they lend themselves so well to it. So while the Double Death DVD is a confusing turn of old-punk aesthetics and indie star-making, the accompanying CD—a grab bag of rare tracks and covers—is shamelessly enjoyable.
Coachwhips songs are cavemen simple, less self-aware than the noisy turns taken by Lightning Bolt or Dwyer’s own Pink and Brown. Re-inventing the wheel, instead of wondering why it’s so round. The organ sounds—droned out on the live footage—are thunderous and menacing, and songs like “Mr. Hyde” wonder rudely, guitars within earshot, why the organ ain’t Rock ‘n’ Roll’s (capital R’s) chief ambassador. Coachwhips are raucous, unthinkin’ fun, and here’s wondering why us purty university boys got ta’do so damn much thinkin’ about it all. Tune in, rock out, etc.
Dwyer followed the dissolution of Coachwhips with a release, The Cool Death of Island Raiders, from his “pure acoustic folk-pop” project Ohsees (formerly OCS), and rarely has an album-sticker quote undersold an album quite so slyly. With a helping production hand from hot-boy Dave Sitek (TV on the Radio), Dwyer adopts a strange, altered falsetto and moves deftly between oblique folk songwriting and space-junk ambient pieces.
Dwyer relates to old-world, Harry Smith-era folk music not through historical, gothic atmosphere, but rather through melodic oddity—the circular irritant “The Guilded Cunt” is reminiscent of Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo Coo Bird” in the way it force-feeds you into dependence. The stark, slow balladry—“Broken Stems,” “You Oughta Go Home”—melds surprisingly well with Dwyer’s sound experiments, which don’t merely serve as between-song fodder, but inherit significant sonic space, forcing you to consider their leaky moods alongside surprisingly adept folk constructions.
The steady hand that guides The Cool Death of Island Raiders is so informed and patient that it makes Dwyer’s shit-talking turn as Coachwhips maniac seem calculated and childish, which—watch the video!—it is decidedly not. You could play these albums off one another, using each to question the other’s sincerity and commitment. Dwyer is alternately alienating (Coachwhips’ arrogant thrashing) and intelligent, conversant (Ohsees educated minstrel-ing) and while these personas seem strange bedfellows, the wax is ultimately captivating enough to alleviate such concerns. Dwyer is serving up all types of fulfillment here, and it makes little sense to ponder which is more “authentic” or “meaningful.” Be loud, honest, confused, consumed. Get in his head.