Oblivians have returned from an over 15-year hiatus at exactly the right time: when seemingly countless numbers of bands have made the Memphis trio’s trademark garage punk sound vital again. And with Desperation, their first album since 1997, Oblivians prove that they can still play the game they frontiered, and then some. Desperation cements itself in line with recent urgent garage punk instant classics like Ty Segall’s Melted: 14 songs in just over half an hour show that the band wishes to waste no time in picking up where they left off.
Primarily, Oblivians are at their best on Desperation when they channel fast-paced ’50s rockabilly and ’60s garage blues, as on the rollicking Loving Cup, their cover of a track by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. For a generation of music listeners whose main foray into ’60s garage punk was likely The Sonics via The Black Keys, Loving Cup the sensual, distorted Em, and Desperation in general have similar crossover potential into the mainstream and should rightly expose new audiences to classic garage rock. And that’s not just because Desperation was recorded at Dan Auerbach’s Nashville studio Easy Eye Sound. It’s also because The Oblivians and especially Greg Cartwright’s tracks channel the garage soul that early Black Keys records such as Thickfreakness and Rubber Factory wore so well.
Later, The Oblivians channel yet another Auerbach connection: Dr John, on Call the Police, a zydeco cover of Stephanie McDee’s track of the same name. They combine quintessential Mac Rebennack keyboards with a band-wide display of gravel throated vocals. Ultimately, Call The Police is a song whose classic, free-spirited hard rock has the greatest potential out of any track on Desperation (well, maybe along with the fast-paced, percussive Fire Detector) to incite riots that would make nervous onlookers perform the action suggested by its title.
Sometimes, Oblivians simply sound like a group of teenagers who have just discovered their parents’ record collection and are now experiencing a youthful drive to pick up guitars and drums and play. For instance, Pinball King is a repetitive garage pop track with a classic sound and basic structure that has never gotten old. Even better is one of Jack Yarber’s contributions, the full-throttle thrash punk track Run For Cover, one with hooks, riffs, and solos that would ideally make a whole new generation of teenagers want to start a band. Moreover, the other Yarber contribution, the lovelorn, ’60s-school-dance soundtracking Little War Child, is an irresistible ballad. It suggests that beyond making a confident statement asserting themselves as once again leaders of the contemporary garage punk scene, Oblivians are simply having more fun than anybody else in 2013.
What’s perhaps most impressive about Desperation is that the trio finds an aesthetic converging point after a long hiatus without being a one-note band, most notably on (almost) namesake track Oblivion, a sludge fest with doom-worthy basslines, tribal drums, and wailing vocals. And just for the hell of it, Oblivion ends with a few subtle, yet ultimately surprising strikes of the piano.
For an album that was certainly not recorded spontaneously, Desperation sure sounds spontaneous. The hand-claps of its title track might as well have been lifted from a live performance of the same song, but they were clearly thought out ahead of time. Perhaps lo-fi purists will cry foul about the comparatively sleek Desperation as it relates to older, less polished Oblivians records. What they’re missing, however, is that Oblivians have used classic recording techniques to achieve what an entire history of pop music producers have tried to achieve: a manufactured sound of spontaneity. For a band who – unlike their ’50s and ’60s producer predecessors – is unlikely to be trying to achieve this sound in order to make vast sums of money, achieving nostalgic, wholeheartedly fake spontaneity is actually a noble, unpretentious goal. And for that, they deserve immense credit, or at least numerous spins on repeat during your summer barbeques.