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Let’s Rock-and-Roll With the Oblivians!

Memphis garage punk heroes release Desperation, the band’s first studio album in 16 years. Is it worth the wait?

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Desperation, the first studio album released by Memphis garage punk heroes the Oblivians since 1997's ...Play Nine Songs with Mr. Quintron, opens with an uncharacteristically thoughtful track. With "I'll Be Gone," Greg Cartwright (aka Greg Oblivian) considers rock music's enduring "live fast, die young" ethos and offers a compelling alternative vision. "Let's rock and roll as we get old," he howls over a bed of scalding guitars that simultaneously calls to mind Cartwright's more recent work with the Reigning Sound and one of Johnny Thunders' dirty Chuck Berry-inspired rave-ups.

The idea for "I'll Be Gone" had been kicking around in Cartwright's head since the untimely 2010 death of 29-year-old Jay Reatard, a popular, Oblivians-influenced artist who overdosed just as his recording career was taking off.

"A lot changes between your 20s and your 40s," Cartwright says, reflecting on the opening song, which plays out like the heartfelt mission statement for a resurrected band that is frequently claimed as a major influence by more commercially successful artists like the Hives and Jack White.

"We're all in our 40s now, and people are dying," Cartwright says. "I'm not talking about people you've never met but people you know intimately. People you love. People who are really close to you. They're dying of cancer, disease, drugs. I just couldn't write the nihilistic rock anthem anymore, even though I understand the humor in it and think that's an important thing to keep. But I don't want a record full of swear words. I don't want to offend people."

"Some people just aren't going to like it," Goner Records owner and founder Eric Friedl (aka Eric Oblivian) says of Desperation's cleaner content and production. Friedl, who learned to play guitar while performing with the Oblivians and has historically been the contributor most in favor of staying true to the band's primitive punk roots, says he's happy with the new record. "But I anticipate backlash. There's always backlash," he adds.

"You can't really win," Cartwright says, comparing Desperation to the Oblivians' last studio record ...Plays Nine Songs, a punk/gospel collection that showcased the idiosyncratic chops of New Orleans organist Mr. Quintron and alienated some of the group's hardcore fans who didn't think it was appropriate for musicians who usually sang about profane things like drugs, booze, and leather to release an album full of sacred music.

"Everybody has expectations for what they want from the bands they really like," Cartwright says. "Most people want a band to basically keep making the same record over and over again, which is a trap. Because when you don't do that, everybody's disappointed. But then when you do, people say, 'Man, these guys are one-trick ponies.'"

"Shake Your Ass"
During their 1993-1998 heyday, the Oblivians didn't worry about swearing or anything else that might offend. The trio embraced the sleazy side of rock-and-roll, recording lo-fidelity, high-energy songs with titles like "And Then I Fucked Her" and "Guitar Shop Asshole."

"It was a jokey band right at the start," Friedl says. "When we got together, we were gonna write the dumbest songs and just have fun."

Oblivians record covers sometimes featured naked or nearly naked photographs of voluptuous burlesque performer D'Lana Tunnell, the star of Teenage Tupelo, a film by Mike McCarthy, the Memphis musician and artist who would later cast the Oblivians' Jack Yarber as a hippie-killing alien in his rock-and-roll fantasy noir, The Sore Losers.

"Those aren't even Oblivians records anymore. They're D'Lana records," jokes Yarber (aka Jack Oblivian) who's spent his post-Oblivians years playing and recording with a diverse group of artists including Tav Falco's Panther Burns, Harlan T. Bobo, and John Paul Keith, while fronting his own all-purpose rock-and-roll outfit, Jack O. and the Tennessee Tearjerkers.

The Oblivians' lo-fi sound turned some fans on and offended the ears of other listeners, even some of the Oblivians. "I've made a lot of terrible-sounding recordings," Yarber says, explaining the economic realities underpinning the band's more primitive efforts. "Whenever we play songs like 'Motorcycle Leather Boy' and 'Feel Real Good' live, people go nuts. It's like Z-Bo just dunked the ball or something, no matter where we play the gig. Now, I really don't think fans are cheering because they love those shitty recordings, although maybe they are. I think they cheer, because they just heard a great song played live.

"Back when we were getting started, we didn't have the money to record," Yarber continues. "Somebody would tell us about a friend who was starting up a record label. They'd say, 'He's a good dude, you know, and he's really into garage rock, and he wants to put out an Oblivians 7-inch.' What were we supposed to do? I guess we could have paid out $800 and booked studio time. Or we could go down in somebody's basement and record on a cassette four-track. Or sometimes just on a regular cassette tape player."

"Strong Come On"
Jack Yarber started playing bass guitar in bands in the 1980s when he was still a teenager living in Corinth, Mississippi. In high school, he was in a punk band called Johnny Vomit and the Dry Heaves with Jimbo Mathus, a childhood friend who would later achieve fame playing in the swing revival band Squirrel Nut Zippers. Yarber liked the punk stuff well enough, but at the time he was more interested in the music he was making with his cousin Sheperd Simmons in a local party band called the End.

Looking for more musical opportunities, Yarber moved to Memphis where he joined Rin Tin Horn, one of the regular bands at Fred's Hideout (now the Cove). The Hideout was a no-frills beer joint on Broad whose easternmost wall was decorated with a crude mural of the original cartoon caveman Fred Flintstone sporting a mohawk. After Rin Tin Horn, Yarber, who'd continued to work with his cousin in a side project called Snak Cake, joined Simmons in a short-lived group called the Painkillers, which was rounded out by drummer Chris Coble and a charismatic guitar player and record collector from Frayser named Greg Cartwright. The Painkillers, in turn, begat Yarber and Cartwright's first band of note, the Compulsive Gamblers.

To borrow from former Memphis Flyer music editor John Floyd, the Compulsive Gamblers, with Bushrod Thomas on drums and Neighborhood Texture Jam's texture man Greg Easterly on violin, were one "mean" band. As Floyd wrote in the liner notes for the compilation CD Gambling Days Are Over, the song titles tell the story: "They were sour and vicious; scared of themselves and drunk with the poison of cheap liquor and cheap women; obsessed with self-loathing and death and loneliness. They sang of dark shadows and blood, murder and sex, and slapped it all together with scraping guitars, horror-show violin, and an organ retrieved from hell's roller rink."

Although the Gamblers' musical arrangements tended to be more complex than anything the Oblivians ever recorded, all of the essential elements of the Oblivians aesthetic were starting to come together.

When Easterly and Thomas moved to New Orleans, Cartwright and Yarber were joined by Eric Friedl, a young punk enthusiast from Hawaii who was working at Shangri-La, the Midtown-based record store that had a launched a label in 1989 and was recording local indie-rock bands like the Grifters and the Simpletones, as well as out-of-towners like Citizens Utilities and the Strapping Fieldhands. Friedl didn't really play guitar or drums at the time, but he was happy to learn enough to get by as he, Cartwright, and Yarber traded instruments and took their turns up front and behind the kit. Working with Friedl's limitations, the Oblivians — originally called Pontius Pilate and the Naildrivers — broke songs down to the primitive essentials, infused them with a uniquely Southern, nearly Pentecostal flavor, and garnished them with ragged nods to '60s girl-pop and Phil Spector.

"Live the Life"
Yarber says it's difficult to nail down the basic elements of an Oblivians song, in part because of the band members' three distinct voices.

"Every song had to be about something," he says, citing his "The Leather" and Cartwright's revved-up (and self-explanatory) rockabilly number "You Better Behave." "That sounds really simple, I guess, but that idea that a song has to be about something goes all the way back to Hoagy Carmichael. And even though we didn't have a bass, every song usually had some bass-line groove."

Yarber leaves the description at that, saying nothing about the band's raw aggression, a preference for musical instruments most players would regard as a handicap, and an ironic sensibility that was lost on some of the fans. If the Compulsive Gamblers had seemed mean, the Oblivians, with their ragged gear and black leather aesthetic, could make you believe they were genuinely unhinged and dangerous.

Mikey Federline, the drummer for Memphis DIY math-punks Man With Gun Lives Here, recalls an Oblivians show at the fabled New York punk club CBGBs, a venue where aggressive behavior was par for the course: "When they took the stage, Greg screamed at the crowd and put a hole in the stage with the butt end of his guitar and then proceeded to start the concert. Everyone in the front took about six steps back. One of the best Oblivians shows I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot."

Early tour dates were hard. At one show in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on a bill with Jon Spencer's band Boss Hog, the audience threw garbage.

"It's a good thing for bands to play in front of audiences that don't like them. It makes you a better band," Friedl says. "It makes you into a gang."

The Oblivians became a gang after signing with Tim Warren's Germany-based Crypt records in 1995. The band spent two months touring Europe, and when they came back to Memphis, they were arguably the most exciting thing to land on the local scene since Big Star called it quits.

"In the States in the '90s, we only did good in places like Austin, which is a music town, and Chicago," Yarber recalls. "Anywhere in between, we played to 10 or 15 people. In Europe, especially around Germany and Holland, we played really small towns where the Soul Food record had just come out and there were kids up onstage singing along with the songs."

"When we got back to Memphis, it was like we'd been shot out of a cannon," Friedl says. "It was literally like you feel the electricity in your hair that's standing on end. And it wasn't just shows. We'd do that in practice. We were all just playing the same chords at the same time but hitting it just right, and things would take off."

In addition to various small-label projects and a handful of EPs for Sympathy for the Record Industry, the Oblivians cut three proper LPs for Crypt: Soul Food, Popular Favorites, and ...Play Nine Songs.

Although Memphis Flyer music writer Jim Hanas described the organ-laced team-up with 9th Ward artist Mr. Quintron as the band's best release, fans were confused. It was the beginning of the end for the Oblivians.

In his review, Hanas wrote that ...Play Nine Songs was a record that collectors would be hunting down 40 years later, describing the disc's contents as "trashed up" gospel, "the likes of which [hasn't] been seen since Jerry Lee Lewis got kicked out of Bible college for wrapping a hymn around a boogie-woogie beat." The Lewis description was accurate, at least as applied to ecstatic performances by Cartwright that, even in the band's rudest incarnations, smacked of the charismatic evangelical.

"Greg worried about doing the gospel stuff," Yarber recalls. "He thought it was going to come off as a jokey Rev. Horton Heat kind of thing. I mean, Rev. Horton Heat is an awesome guitar player, but Greg didn't want to use gospel as a gimmick. And he worried that even if it wasn't a gimmick it might be marketed that way."

"I felt like it was logical next step," Cartwright says. "We were already mining rhythm and blues and country and rockabilly, and you know the greatest wellspring of all that stuff is gospel. Now, in retrospect, I think people see the connection. At the time, nobody wanted to hear the Oblivians do gospel music. This was not the proper third album follow-up to the other two records."

An early promotional copy of ...Play Nine Songs had a pair of stiletto heels screenprinted on the front.

"Greg freaked," Yarber says. "You can't have stiletto heels on the gospel record!"

In 1998, the Oblivians disbanded. "We were just completely sick of each other," Cartwright says. "Eric and I were not getting along to the point that it was either time to end the band or to beat the hell out of each other, so I think we took the smart road and just called it a day."

"You Better Behave"
"Time changes everything," Cartwright says. It's really the only answer he or any of his bandmates have to the question "why now?"

Logically, it might have made more sense for the Oblivians to reunite during the post-millennium garage-rock revival, when guitar rock was on the upswing. And they might have gotten some mileage out of the fact that Jack White wasn't just a fan, he actually owned and played Yarber's red fiberglass Airliner guitar. But in spite of many booking opportunities and some generous guarantees, it seemed as though the Oblivians were determined to live up to their name.

In 2003, Yarber asked Cartwright and Friedl about the possibility of a one-off show. Both said they were only interested if everybody was really into it. "I don't remember who I called back first, but it was like, 'Hey, Greg, I just talked to Eric, and he says he's really, really into it.'"

Not only did the Hi-Tone reunion show with former Crypt labelmates Cheater Slicks sell out, the line for the show stretched more than a block down Poplar.

"It was indubitably the largest and most energetic crowd I had ever seen at an Oblivians Memphis show," says SugarDaddy Mike, the pseudonymous CEO of Wrecked 'Em Wreckords and one of many promoters who'd fruitlessly offered the Oblivians a substantial guarantee to reunite. "I guess the layoff from performing live only made the Oblivians legend loom larger."

"It was completely weird," says Friedl, who describes the success of that first Oblivians reunion as the original inspiration for Gonerfest, Goner Records' popular punk-rock festival.

"Since then, we've gotten together every three years," Yarber says.

"I loved it," Cartwright recalls, remembering the thrill of touring Europe with Detroit's the Gories in 2009.

"This is a band that I look up to," Cartwright says. "I never dreamed that anybody would ever look at one of my bands the same way."

"Call the Police"
Friedl is probably right about one thing. Anybody who expects Desperation, which was recorded in less than a week at the Nashville studio of Black Keys musician Dan Auerbach, to sound like an old Oblivians 7" will be sorely disappointed. The band doesn't pretend that the past 15 years never happened, and most tracks are sonically closer to the musicians' individual recording projects but goosed-up Oblivians-style.

"The biggest pitfall for bands when they reunite is the inclination to make a record that mimics something you did 15 years ago," Cartwright says.

Over the course of 14 tracks, Des-peration finds a rootsier Yarber plunging headlong into Tom Petty (meets Shangri-Las) territory with "War Child," while Friedl offers some urgent droning punk with "Woke Up in a Police Car" and "Fire Detector." In addition to his originals, Cartwright brings a wild, noisy, genuinely lo-fi-sounding version of Andy Griffith's "Mama Guitar," from the Elia Kazan film A Face in the Crowd and a masterful, garage-rock run through Stephanie McDee's zydeco/hip-hop fusion "Call the Police," with a snakey organ track courtesy of Mr. Quintron, who just happened to be in Nashville playing at Jack White's record store/club Third Man.

If "Call the Police" doesn't exactly capture the vintage Oblivians sound, lyrics warning everybody that the drinking is about to get serious enough for law enforcement certainly captures the spirit.

"It's my daughter's favorite track," Cartwright says.

So, is there a future for the Oblivians? As long as there's an interest in the music and the songs keep coming, the answer seems to be a unanimous yes.

"In the Reigning Sound, my role is so defined," Cartwright says. "I'm never going to stop doing other projects, but I know what I get out of the Oblivians now in ways I probably didn't in 1997. I didn't realize what I would miss about it. Sometimes it takes a little time to realize the virtue of something. Making a record was fun. Writing the songs was fun. But getting out and playing those songs for people until they are razor-sharp ... that makes my heart beat faster just thinking about it. That's the kicks for me. That's the best."

Desperation by the Oblivians will be released June 4th on In the Red Records. To stream the record, click here.

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