Memphis Creeps

After four years of inspired nonsense, the Oblivians remain desperate but not serious

Anybody can be dumb. Stupidity requires vision.
In rock 'n' roll, the distinction means everything. Journey was just plain dumb, but the Ramones were gloriously stoopid. Today, as always, we're overrun by dumb bands that think they're smart, earthbound in their attempts to prove their seriousness, their literary weight and their oh-so-precious angst. We all recognize these depressingly dull blades when we see 'em: matchbox 20, the Verve Pipe, Tonic, Bush, etc. Despite the best efforts of radio to drum them into your psyche, their tunes are forgotten by the time they make the voyage from one ear to the other.

But stupidity is a different kind of beast. It can be a liability when operating heavy machinery, but in rock 'n' roll, it means transcendence, freedom from responsibility and an untamed disregard for good taste. In other words, the very essence of the music.

As much as any band on the planet, the Oblivians understand that it takes a special kind of smarts to be profoundly stupid. Self-described nerds and Memphis creeps, this trio rose out of the ashes of the Compulsive Gamblers, one of the great unrecognized bands of the '90s. During the course of three albums, various singles and dozens of chaotic live shows, the Oblivians have done everything within their limited power to push rock out of the penthouse, and stick it back in the outhouse, where it belongs. In true Ramonesy fashion, they even pretend to share the same last name, even though they're clearly not related. Eric Oblivian, who shares vocal, drumming and guitar duties with his comrades Jack and Greg Oblivian, sees the band's dedication to simplicity as a direction borne of both necessity and choice.

"I think it's harder to do things simply than to add a lot of ornamentation to things," Eric says from his Memphis home. "It's a built-in limitation for us. It's not like we can sit there and play Steve Vai solos over everything. If it gets too far away from the original idea of the song, or the song gets too complicated, we don't really have too much fun playing it."

Eric adds that if he or his bandmates come in with an overly complicated song, they'll usually end up deciding to "edit it down to the main riff and yell something over and over again."

Without sounding quite like any other Memphis band, the Oblivians uncannily capture the existential desperation that comes from living in a decaying river city far removed from any cosmopolitan action. A place where you get liquored up just 'cause you can't think of anything else to do. As Eric's former boss, Shangri-La Record Store owner Sherman Willmott, once said, "You will never lose money selling alcohol in Memphis."

While the Oblivians' music is wild and urgent, it's not exactly fun in the typical sense. When they scream, "I'm not a sicko, there's a plate in my head" or invert the old Crystals tune "Then He Kissed Me" into their own furious "And Then I Fucked Her," the effect is more frightening than festive.

But what really makes the Oblivians special is their complete understanding of raw, elemental American music and how to apply it to whatever they're feeling at the moment, without stopping to intellectualize it. When they get an urge to pay tribute to their photographer, they crank out a song with the shouted refrain, "Jim Cole's got too much soul/I can't staaand it." In their own sick way, they're taking the feel of the simple Delta blues still played in juke joints near Memphis, but they give it their own trashy twist, because--unlike the Eric Claptons of the world--they love it too much to want to copy it.

"It's definitely something that you would want to aspire to, even though nobody's gonna play that stuff like those guys," Eric says. "When you go see R.L. Burnside or Junior Kimbrough, they just have this kind of timeless, supernatural groove thing that you don't get anywhere else. It's real music, rather than this indie-rock whining that's pretty disposable. It makes an impression, even if you can't try to go out and be an authentic bluesman yourself. It's real simple. It's just done right."

Much the same could be said of the Oblivians' own work, but, brilliant as they are, they can't prevent Compulsive Gamblers fans from continuing to mourn that band's demise four years ago. Jack and Greg formed the Gamblers, and dominated their sound from the beginning. If anything, the Gamblers were more desperate and nihilistic than the Oblivians, but they dressed up their malaise in some fancy settings: Booker T.-inspired soul, baroque waltzes, surf rock, and the pure-pop alchemy of their classic "Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right." At times they evoked the cabaret surrealism of Tom Waits (whose "Down in the Hole" they covered), but their offhand virtuosity--and gallows humor--was incomparable. They split up in 1993 before earning their due, but 20 of their best tracks are available on an essential Sympathy for the Record Industry album called Gambling Days Are Over.

Eric met Jack and Greg during his days working at Shangri-La, and while Greg was out touring with the notoriously raunchy '68 Comeback, Eric and Jack put together some new songs, switching off on guitar and drums from song to song. When Greg got back to town, he quickly realized they had the basis of a new, though somewhat more primitive, lineup.

"Especially at the start, and even now, I can't play all the stuff [the Gamblers] could," Eric says. "They had a real bass player, and their drummer was real good, so they could do a lot of different times and played all kinds of fancy, pretty things. And I can do that, but it's really not what I'm into. They had done that kind of blues stuff and strange waltzes, and I think they were kinda into doing a straight rock 'n' roll thing, trying to keep it as simple as possible, without it being some kind of generic rock thing."

With Soul Food, the Oblivians' 1995 debut album for the Hamburg, Germany-based Crypt Records, they proved that they could, with equal fervor, dismantle an original like "Blew My Cool," or a blues classic like Lightnin' Hopkins' "Vietnam War Blues." A little-known live album released the same year earned acclaim from Spin magazine as one of the "10 Best Albums You Didn't Hear in '95." They followed that up with Popular Favorites, a raucous classic that drew unlikely gushes from industry war-horses like Billboard and earned the band massive airplay on Dutch national radio. But it's their new album, Oblivians . . . Play 9 Songs With Mr. Quintron, that fully delivers on the soulful promise of the Compulsive Gamblers, without losing the Oblivians' trademark idiocy.

Aided by the warm Hammond B3 organ playing of the mysterious Mr. Quintron, the Oblivians storm through a less-manic-than-usual collection of tunes, and reveal a deepening sense of groove. Greg's emerging fascination with gospel music rears its head on the exultant traditional tune "What's the Matter Now" and his handclap-driven "Feel All Right." On Play 9 Songs, the Oblivians hit that rarefied zone where the originals sound like old classics, and the covers sound like something the band could have written. Though the band's covers are usually well-chosen obscure nuggets that it tears into with loving irreverence, Eric says he's always wary of the pitfalls of tampering with a great tune.

"There's a tradition of punk-rock bands beating up country songs and blues songs," he says. "Rocking something out harder doesn't make it any better. It's like Canned Heat or Led Zeppelin doing blues songs. Just because it's louder doesn't make it better. Usually it ends up killing the original. It's kind of tricky."

The band's secret weapon on the new album is Mr. Quintron, a shadowy figure whose biography sounds suspiciously like fiction, but the band insists he is a Chicago native currently living in New Orleans.

"The first time we saw him, he came down with the Demolition Doll Rods to play a show, and he was doing a one-man-band-type thing," Eric says. "He was sitting behind drums with tuned water bottles and a synthesizer and a trumpet and a guitar he played with a drumstick, and all kinds of other things at the same time. He was a real whirlwind of noise.

"It evolved into him just playing organ, and his girlfriend did a puppet show with exploding puppets. We knew he played organ, but the organ he plays at his shows is just really freeform, crazy circus organ. So we didn't really know if he could play organ like most organ players. But we had these songs together that we thought would sound good with organ, but we didn't want anybody that would play it too straight, and it would be more fun to play with Mr. Quintron. So we brought him up from New Orleans, sat him down at the organ, and didn't know what was gonna happen."

In one feverish day of recording, they completed one of the best--albeit, at 27 minutes, one of the shortest--rock albums of the year. Despite their burgeoning popularity, the Oblivians--in true Memphis fashion--refuse to become ambitious careerists about something which they started doing as a fun way to kill time.

"From the start, it was just always kind of screwing around," Eric says. "Whoever ended up on drums at the time got stuck there. We never really took it that seriously. People always tell us, 'You could do a lot better if you stuck with one lineup.' But that's not the point of the band. If we were trying to really go far, we probably could have come up with a better plan and better music than what we're doing now."

Though the Oblivians take baby steps toward maturity with the midtempo songs on Play 9 Songs, their formula remains a constant attempt to capture imbecilic inspiration in a bottle.

"One of our favorite bands is probably the Troggs, who were just complete morons," Eric says. "But they'd come up with great simple songs, huge hits. It was obvious that there was nothing clever about it. They just wrote a good song. That would kind of be our ideal, without playing up the idea that 'I've got a plate in my head.' . . . But that's a great song."

The Oblivians are scheduled to perform on Thursday, October 30, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe, with the Wongs, and the Breakmen. Showtime is 10 p.m.

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