As more indie and punk bands from the 1990s reform in the 2010s, fans have a right to be skeptical, or, at the very least, cautious. This seems particularly apt with a band like the Oblivians, whose essential charm was rooted in a drunken, sweaty ineptitude that placed blood, guts and mangled blues over pure technique and musicianship. How do you recreate such intense, chaotic moments when, chances are, you can’t even remember them?
In the case of the Oblivians’ excellent new album on In the Red — the trio’s first in 16 years — apparently they don’t even bother to recollect. Jack Yarber, Greg Cartwright and Eric Friedl have all had notable careers since the dissolution of the band and, particularly in the case of Yarber and Cartwright, developed into truly skilled players. Yarber has carved himself a nice niche as a reliable purveyor of well-crafted trad-rock that mines the barrooms, pawn shops, and back alleys of the South for inspiration. He plays the classic foil to Cartwright, who has slowly built a name for himself as one of the finest songwriters in America, whether as a behind-the-scenes ace for the likes of Mary Weiss of The Shangri-Las or as the main man of the mighty Reigning Sound. Friedl, to his credit, has put in time with several Memphis punk one-offs, including Bad Times (with Jay Reatard), The Dutch Masters, The Legs, and band-as-weeknight-drinking-club The True Sons of Thunder. He’s also developed Goner Records from a smalltime operation into one of the more respected indie labels around (to say nothing of the store of the same name).
Rather than searching aimlessly for the spent magic of past glories, Yarber, Cartwright and Friedl have firmly rooted themselves in the here and now — a present that, musically, isn’t exactly eons from where they started. They’ve brought the musical and personal wisdom gained over the past two decades into the studio with them and created exactly the kind of record one would hope for from an older version of a band once hellbent on being young.
Cartwright handles the majority of the songwriting and singing on the album’s 14 songs, but everybody gets a turn. Friedl’s minor-key "Woke Up in a Police Car" recalls Wipers in its Kafkaesque circumstances of a hungover morning after. Yarber’s scuzzy "Run for Cover" riffs on Motörhead with its pile-driver hook and is perhaps the closest song in spirit to the vintage Oblivians sound. But with "War Chid," which pays homage to a female rock ‘n’ roll lifer, Yarber switches things up with a bouncy glam melody that pushes to the fore his penchant for the bubblegum hymn. Cartwright’s offerings show the range of his abilities; while "I’ll Be Gone" is slightly more raw in its execution that what now constitutes a Reigning Sound song, it wouldn’t sound out of place on one of the band’s recent records. But on the infectiously simple "Pinball Song" — “ding ding the pinball king / pinball and beer in the middle of spring” — one has to really strain to hear the same guy who wrote the nuanced and introspective numbers on 2009’s Love and Curses.
The band’s penchant for inspired cover choices remains firmly in place. A maniacal take on the country novelty "Mama Guitar" closes the album, but it’s "Call the Police" that makes for arguably the set’s most memorable track. The band’s brilliant recasting of Stephanie McDee’s regional hit strips the original of its zydeco-tech flourishes and hammers home a Cajun two-step beat in an avalanche of guitar fuzz and booze-soaked revelry. The song is an anthem to music and debauchery, and it’s the essence of the Oblivians in any incarnation and in any era. It’s also just one of the reasons why Desperation may prove to be the best rock record of the year.