Oblivians – Desperation (Music Review)

Desperation cover

Oblivians – Desperation

Nostalgia being what it is, I’m not surprised that so many ’90s bands have reformed in the past couple years. What does surprise me is how good some of these reunions have been. It helps that most of these bands weren’t superstars hoping to make a fortune with teir comeback. They were critical darlings like The Pixies who only became widely appreciated in recent years, or cult favorites like The Oblivians. The Oblivians’ new album, Desperation, shows just how some age and perspective can strengthen a band. They’re the same dirty garage punks as ever, and they haven’t lost that immature edge, but their topics are deeper and more varied. Unexpected covers (like Paul Butterfield’s “Lovin’ Cup” and Stephanie McDee’s “Call the Police“) mix with songs about girls, music, and pinball.

The band bills themselves as “Greg Oblivian”, “Eric Oblivian”, and “Jack Oblivian”, and each member is credited with”guitar, drums, and vocals”. The names are an affectation, but the credits aren’t. All three members do switch between instruments and singing throughout the album. The lo-fi production helps obscure some of the differences between their performances, creating the continuity that makes it sound like all songs come from the same band. There are still obvious differences, but in the end it works to make Desperation a varied but coherent album. You get the thrashing “Run for Cover” and soul-influenced “Em” in one album, and it feels like they belong together.

Unfortunately, some of the most noticeable differences are in skill. Some songs have decently complex guitar or drums (by garage punk standards, at least), while others are simple and plodding. Songs like “Pinball King” have powerful vocals that really sell their combination of wild youth and knowing music veteran, while a couple like “Woke Up In A Police Car” feel more like the singer is sleepwalking through the performance.

Don’t let that discourage you, though. The best tracks are great. “Call the Police” (a cover of a zydeco party standby) and “Pinball King” (an unapologetic song about spending your life doing what you love) are my favorite simple dumb rock songs of the year. (Not that good “simple dumb rock songs” are ever as simple or dumb as they act.) Though they’re 90s punks, there’s a lot of Ramones or Dead Boys in their style, with strange choices of phrasing like “Little War Child” or “Fire Detector” that give the impression that they’re defining their own path rather than following a scene’s expectations. And “I’ll Be Gone” is a great opener for a comeback album, about their love of music and disdain for selling out or chasing trends.

I hope Desperation is the start of a great second career. It taps into the primal power of rock and roll, crossing generations and mixing wit with straightforward honesty. Even its less good songs feel appropriate. After all, rock as good as this should be messy and imperfect, right?

Grade: B+

 
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