What if the Rolling Stones got stranded in a Louisiana garage and had to trade their swagger in for beer? What if the Doors were actually forced, not asked, to play at twice their normal tempo? What if Blue Öyster Cult found Wire’s equipment from their debut album (Pink Flag) and took excessive amounts of speed? The answer is the Oblivians. Yes, you heard it. The Oblivians.
So who/what/when are the Oblivians? They once were (1993-1998), then weren’t (1999-2011), then were again (2012-now) a garage rock band with a fuzzy, sloppy sound of garage rock mixed with zydeco
, as if ZZ Top were (penalty for over-use of a joke). Sorry ’bout that. Now, I’ve seen some call the band punk and I get it, but this latest album is not punk except for a general sense of sloppyness and a lack of instrumental flights of fancy. Their latest release, Desperation, resembles their prior work in that both involve recording sounds to be played later by fancy electronic devices. If anything, they’re more refined, more mannered, sloppy drunken punks. Some, like the uber-hip Pitchfork, yearn for the simpler times of earlier Oblivians releases. I’m not so sentimental, only because I arrived late and, thanks to the music hoarding 1537, only just discovered these hoodlums.
So what’s the big deal? For me, a frequent car-listener, this is one of the first albums that perfectly fills the car. The rough sounds match the rough road. The rough vocals match the wind noise. The head-bobbing fast pace matches the pavement rhythms. The absence of a bass guitar means my sub-wooferized butt doesn’t grab all the attention. Just the fact that the music moves quickly either gives me hope as I move slowly or feels like it’s pulling me rapidly through traffic.
What does it sound like that I haven’t already discussed? The guitar fuzz is a kind of rough fuzz like an engine about to give out. The vocals and the Harley that just drove by have about the same qualities: noisy and energetic without anything to say (do you care if his girlfriend mistakes him for a fire detector?). The drums, insistent and mostly unvarying take you from here to there without detours or to smell flowers (they smell like traffic). If ZZ Top is too smooth, the Black Keys too mellow, your pysch rock too pyschy, your grooves too frilly, Oblivians are for you. If you prefer polish (or Polish), high art, go elsewhere. If you can’t handle quick short wailing “soloes”, move on. If you want literature or it’s musical equivalent, you’re in the wrong place. But, if you’re in my car, you will hear it and you will know that this music has a home, between my own home and work.
As an aside, punk and garage rock can sound quite similar. What’s the real difference? Sincerity. Consider the Oblivians garage rock lyrics:
Call the Police, Call the Police. We’re gonna get our drink on.
Two thousand, zero, zero, party over. Out of time.
Tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1999.
The world’s ending? That’s punk!
If rock music were currently more dominant, the Oblivians still wouldn’t be the Rolling Stones, but they might have been 3 Dog Night or, at least, Bachmann Turner Overdrive or at least the Marshall Tucker Band. They might have been, but they’re not.