Graded on a Curve: Oblivians, Desperation

These days there’s a certifiable bevy of garage punk activity that’s worthy of inspection, but back in the ‘90s the roost was ruled by a handful of bands. One of them was the Oblivians. They were unstable, unsubtle, and proudly uncouth, and after roaring through the mid-section of the ‘90s like kings, they disbanded in 1998. Like many outfits from that decade, they’ve decided the time is right for a return to the recording studio, and the good news is that with Desperation, the Oblivians have rekindled their fire with ease. An even better turn of events is that they do so without pretending that sixteen years have transpired since their last effort.

Like assorted other enduring genres, the Garage impulse can be a fairly large descriptive umbrella. That all depends on the person wielding the term of course, for some continue to consider it exclusively as the expression of ‘60s teen bands as detailed most famously on the Nuggets compilations, but also through a slew of other discs; along with Pebbles and Highs in the Mid-Sixties (which combined for over fifty goddamn volumes), the Crypt Records’ issued Back From the Grave series really set the garage-comp standard (only eight LPs, the last two double sets, but all of it massive.)

Other folks, in a manner similar to the use of the descriptor “punk,” have retroactively applied Garage to all sorts of stripped-down musical action, from the more unkempt strains of ’50s R&R to a big hunk of late-‘70s, mostly US-based, punk stuff.

And there is also a prolific wave of ‘80s bands to reflect upon, the majority adopting a look to match their combined stylistic plundering of the original ‘60s garage wave, the devotion of these groups getting them lumped into a sub-genre labeled as either retro- or neo-garage.

Unsurprisingly, that scene caught a lot of flak for backward thinking and too much attention to image, but a bunch of those bands were actually pretty freaking good. Right now The Cynics, The Miracle Workers, The Chesterfield Kings, and Thee Fourgiven all spring to mind, and a great primer in this material is the Rhino box set Children of Nuggets, though the territory that global retrospective covers takes on all sorts of disparate yet simpatico range, from Paisley Underground to power pop to early Flying Nun to the Screaming Trees and Teenage Fanclub.

If underrated and perhaps too often forgotten today, by the later ‘80s retro-garage was pretty much played-out. With a few notable exceptions, the ’60 bands that provided the inspiration for the movement rarely lasted beyond a couple singles (and if they did manage an LP or two, cutting the mustard across an entire platter was real cause for celebration), so sustained quality wasn’t really in the cards for these retro stylists either.

But just as neo-garage was running out of gas, a fresh re-ignition of the genre was emerging to essentially take its place, specifically garage punk, and it was this subset that came to define the ‘90s (and forward) from a Garage standpoint. And while there is a whole lot of worthy garage punk action to absorb from that period, after contemplation my picks for the four cornerstones of the form are The Mummies, The Gories, Cheater Slicks, and the Oblivians.

A big part of what defined these bands was a shared love for rock expression at its most unsophisticated, with their devotion for this simplicity expressed not through attempts to replicate long-gone auras that would inspire accusations of being outdated (as happened with retro-garage), but instead by giving it a transfusion of mauling guitar grit, aggressively basic drumming, and vocals that if drenched with attitude were refreshingly free of potentially alienating mannerist tropes.

If you’re thinking that I’ve just provided a nutshell description of punk, well yes, but the sonic reality of ‘90s garage punk didn’t land all that close to the punkish stylings that originated in the late-‘70s. The flat fact is that garage punk was even more basic. Frequently it was intoxicated by the blues, a situation that can be partially credited to the influence of Jon Spencer, though the deal is far from that simple. And yet garage punk often possessed a higher level of discipline than the ’77 variety, which is why the genre managed to produce a high ratio of knockout albums in the ‘90s.

If clearly non-retro in nature, this didn’t curtail the occasional dismissal of these groups as being regressive. Some couldn’t even get past the lack of a bass player in three of my four cornerstones. Well, hogwash to those sentiments. ‘Tis true this kind of haywire simplicity ain’t for everybody, but it’s as legit and relevant as any wrinkle in the whole rock shebang. And if The Mummies, The Gories, and the Slicks all had roots in the latter portion of the ‘80s, the Oblivians’ formation in 1993 helped make clear that garage punk had true legs of longevity.

The Oblivians emerged in Memphis from the stalled-engine of another strong group, the distinctly southern-fried (and garage punk tinged) outfit The Compulsive Gamblers. Greg Cartwright and Jack Yarber were both members of that band, and when the act hit a stumbling block they joined up with Goner Records’ honcho Eric Friedl, the trio all adopting the surname Oblivian and getting right down to business.

Like the Gamblers (and in a manner similar to Detroit’s The Gories), the Oblivians specialize in a sound that holds a definite geographical bent, with their throttle informed by the very environs that hatched the rock ‘n’ roll egg way back when. What they spit out was just so raw that many people either missed the connection or instead misapprehended what they were doing as brazen deconstruction.

Not really. It was more aptly described as the best kind of extension. The Oblivions had one collective foot submerged in the deep mud of the past and the other one ground firmly into the topsoil of the present. They released a slew of records in a variety of formats, but their first two non-comp studio LPs, ‘95’s Soul Food and the following year’s Popular Favorites each provide exemplary and concise examples of their initial personality.

Two comps were also assembled, Sympathy Sessions and the once posthumous Best of the Worst: 93-97, and while both are truly essential for fans of the band, they’re bountiful running times aren’t really the best way to get introduced the trio. And it’s also recommended that new ears save ‘97’s …Plays 9 Songs with Mr. Quintron until after the tough gristle of Soul Food and/or Popular Favorites gets nicely chewed upon.

That record, made in collaboration with the organist and contemporary mainstay of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward that’s sited in the title, finds the group tackling a rack of gospel material with expected zest, and while many (like myself) enjoy the LP immensely, others are less smitten with the album, mainly because it’s not really the “classic” Oblivians’ sound (in some ways …Plays 9 Songs is closer to what the Compulsive Gamblers were up to.) Furthermore, this progression basically spelled the end of the band.

But …Plays 9 Songs with Mr. Quintron found the Oblivions engaged in an admirable evolution and those listeners who would’ve preferred the band to just continue working in the inexhaustible zone of their first two discs might also find Desperation a bit disappointing. To my ear however, their new slab is the best kind of reunion effort, one that acknowledges that a whole lot has happened since Greg, Jack, and Eric last gathered in a studio to cut an album.

For one thing, Greg Cartwright has made an impressive name for himself as part of Reigning Sound, releasing a batch of high-quality LPs that display his considerable musical ability, with the group even backing up ex-Shangri-La Mary Weiss on Dangerous Game, the singer’s very nice 2007 solo return after an absence of over thirty years. The other Oblivians have also been busy, Jack figuring in a heaping mess of bands and Eric, in addition to running Goner, also playing in Bad Times with King Louie Bankston and the late Jay Reatard.

So, if much has transpired, Desperation happily makes no attempts to downplay these events. While opener “I’ll Be Gone” is loaded with guitar distortion and rhythmic thump, it’s also more immediately melodic than the Oblivians circa ’93-’95. Greg’s vocals are suitably raw but are also invested with a classique sensibility that reflects the growth he’s underwent during the Oblivians’ long hiatus.

Next up is a gnarly reduction of Paul Butterfield’s “Lovin’ Cup,” a gesture that’s in keeping with their penchant for savvy blues pilfering (they’ve previously covered both Lightnin’ Hopkins and Brownie McGhee.) Following this is “Em,” a catchy soul-mover that’s as strong as anything in the arsenals of the current garage punk scene, and it’s a no-brainer that this contempo crowd would surely sound a whole lot different minus the Oblivians as a guiding light.

The Eric-sung “Woke Up in a Police Car” offers up some impressive Killed by Death-styled wobble and grunt, but the cover of Stephanie McDee’s late-period zydeco-party regional hit “Call the Police” really gets things moving, the group (with Mr. Quintron and Miss Pussycat guesting on organ, percussion and vocals) knocking out a highly-spirited groove-stomp, making it clear as crystal that the Oblivians’ crucial past-present scenario, if distinct in its 2013 incarnation, remains as healthy as ever.

To wit, if the group’s shared surname tips a hat to The Ramones, then the dumb/smart sublimity of “Pinball King” reveals an even deeper NYC/Memphis connection. The Jack-sung “Run for Cover” is a fine excursion into amped-up velocity, and “Come a Little Closer” brings even more of Greg’s estimable songwriting prowess to the table, though it’s delivered with a considerably higher level of dishevelment (which is appropriate for an Oblivians album) than is his wont in Reigning Sound.

“Little War Child” finds Jack back at the mic, and its detour into ‘60s melodicism is one of Desperation’s unexpected highlights. Eric steps up again for a nifty ’77-ish slam-bang “Fire Detector,” and from there the rest is just gravy. “Oblivian” crawls close to the intensity of the band’s early days, and yet it’s imbued with a strength (in this case it’s best to not call it maturity) that continues to differentiate Desperation from the band’s previous records.

As I hope the above illustrates, that doesn’t mean it’s not a logical turn of events. Jack’s “Back Street Hangout” is a nice mid-tempo hunch that features some choice guitar flaying, and the title track turns up the heat and even employs some hand claps for good measure. That leaves closer “Mama Guitar,” a song some might recognize (though the Oblivians do a good job of disguising it) from the Elia Kazan-directed Andy Griffith-starring ’57 film classic A Face in the Crowd.

If plainly influential on today’s practitioners of the style, gestures like “Mama Guitar” (and the Butterfield and McDee covers, as well) reveal a marked difference between the Oblivians’ brand of garage punk and the overflow of worthwhile current stuff. Now more than ever this band should be considered as a major part of Memphis’ grand left-field tradition, and Desperation stands as a rare feat; it’s a reunion record that feels like a minor classic.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • http://geeksdiary.wordpress.com/ Duff Clarity

    Oblivians, not Oblivions. Cool article though.

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