Fueled by tumultuous and raw pagan holy rolling, Memphis’s indie-rockin’ Oblivians don’t want to transform ’50s music so much as to infuse it with unbridled rapacious re-visitations. Their songs and relentless lo-fi bass-less discordance revitalize the precepts of Jerry Lee, filter them through an incendiary Williamson/Stooges ethos, mixed down by Satan himself. Their albums’ hilarious near-porno artwork, raunchy lyrics, fierce lupine wails, covers of obscure Lightnin’ Hopkins numbers and blues-soaked psychobilly songs buzz and growl spirited reclamations of southern America, leaving behind permanent celebrations of roots music. This is agnostic gospel.
The Oblivians’ music could have been recorded in a town water tank with one mic; there’s a stripped-down boogie chillun vibe that becomes almost trance-like. Although slavish to its 1950s sources, the music is rawer, more unsentimental. Less talented than the Gories, less encyclopedic than the Cramps and raunchier than Nashville Pussy, the Oblivians are the idiot savants of contemporary garage intensity. Eric (Friedl) Oblivian, Greg (Cartwright) Oblivian and Jack (Yarber) Oblivian trade off on stinging, fuzzy guitar, Tasmanian devil drumming and yelping. Eric runs Goner Records, has played with ’68 Comeback and the Dutch Masters. Greg has played with Compulsive Gamblers, Walter Daniels, the Reigning Sound and helped out Mr. Airplane Man and the Detroit Cobras. Jack was also a Gambler and gigs with a half dozen or so Memphis bands, like the Tearjerkers, South Filthy and Limes.
Soul Food is the band’s first real studio album and it’s a necessary purchase. The ear-bleeding opener, a rendition of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Viet Nam War Blues,” sounds like the second Velvets effort if Lou Reed had studied under Hasil Adkins instead of Delmore Schwartz. The fecund follow-up, “And Then I Fucked Her,” proudly disassembles Iggy’s Bomp singles, leaving the bursting sound if not the structure. Greg’s singing throughout the album is as fierce as the buzzsaw merged guitars. Soul Food pummels every pounding riff. Some of the songs had previously appeared on singles and comps and live albums (“Nigger Rich,” “I’m Not a Sicko,” “There’s a Plate in My Head”), but for the most part this party is as fresh as fresh gets. It’s spooky and abrasive, and drunkenly glorious.
Sympathy Sessions collects the contents of two 10-inch releases, Never Enough and Six of the Best, adding four single sides. The 18 originals don’t so much as develop as stab, pinning you against a wall. More garage than ‘billy, the songs show disregard for melodies, disdain for the recording process and distaste for conventional song structure. The singers whelp like beaten dogs in this feral primitive world, and the highlights are many: the crunchy “Never Enough,” the atavistic “Clones,” the Ramones-tinged “Five Hour Man.” The album smokes.
Popular Favorites is more focused, more accurate in its incarnation of all things sleazy, sexy and punky. There’s a more improvisational air here; the songs were recorded over a two-day period, which mainly implies longer beer runs. “Strong Come On” shakes the rafters; the politically incorrect “She’s a Hole” is strident, rambunctious greatness. On an altogether joyous album, that sense of fuck-it-all mirth is best exemplified on “Do the Milkshake,” an anthemic boogie-down dance craze masterpiece of manic depressive voodoo guitar jangle. In this hypnotic and dense and minimal track, the band’s fear of using a studio to engineer a more refined sound works, as if something pristine would lead to a scurrilous mechanical misdeed. The boys just let their fervor throb.
The fervor blossoms on their finest album, Play 9 Songs With Mr. Quintron, a soothed savage beast stricken with the affliction of yearning for god, a god who apparently can be found in the depths of the nearby Mississippi. A catalyst for this shift to gospel-tinged melancholy is the inclusion of the iconoclastic Mr. Quintron. The legendary Crescent City one-man band adds percussion here as well as haunting, picturesque organ fills. There’s real heartbreak on the two traditional churchy hymns, “Live the Life” and “What’s The Matter Now?,” and the two searching originals, “If Mother Knew” and “Final Stretch.” Accepting and then combining all the blurred boundaries of country gospel, Ozark blues, teenage rockabilly angst and New Orleans blues, these songs show off the band’s increasingly potent singing: they are like the Band here in that they embrace off-kilter harmonies, southern roots and raggedy tributes to villainous saints. In fact, the finale is “Mary Lou,” a barnburner borrowed from Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks (still not as potent as the album’s opener, “Feel All Right.”) Whew!
Best of the Worst (93–97) contains home studio demos, eight from the WFMU studios and a half-dozen live performances. The Oblivians sweat more than most, tap into your heart’s blood and perform with gallows humor all the time, so these blue collar restorations of foundation rock are frantic simulations of that which is most elusive in music today: foul-mouthed greasers howling simple songs about simple things.
Melissa’s Garage Revisted, expanding on the 1995 EP, finds our heroes playing with Walter Daniels (who has also done sessions with the Hickoids, Gay Sportscasters and Alejandro Escovedo) providing Chess-like harp and Roky Erickson-like vocals, if that’s not too strong a word. The slight condescension in the cowpunk cover of Marty Robbins’ “Don’t Worry” is the only misstep; the rest swirls and swoons around heavy Muddy Waters riffing. The second half of the short album features renegade Monsieur Jeffrey Evans (Gibson Bros., ’68 Comeback) on vocals and guitar. With the Oblivians at their bluesiest, each of the songs (two originals and one each by Lowell Fulsom and Henry Glover) is an absolute knockout: dizzying, discordant, jousting and stuttering.